KYIV -- A Ukrainian judge acquired Russian citizenship following Russia's 2014 seizure of Crimea, spending more than eight months on the occupied peninsula between 2018 and 2022 and using her Russian passport to travel to Moscow, Schemes, the investigative unit of RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service, has found.
Lyudmyla Arestova, a judge on the Donetsk district Administrative Court -- which is responsible for the partially occupied Donetsk region of eastern Ukraine and is located in the city of Dnipro due to the Russian invasion -- is now the subject of a preliminary investigation by Ukrainian authorities.
Arestova, 44, is a native of Russia who moved to Ukraine in the 1990s. Speaking to Schemes, she denied that she had Russian citizenship or a passport but, aside from suggesting her signature was forged, was unable to explain the official documents obtained by Schemes that show she has both.
In a letter to RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service dated July 24, Dmytro Levichev, the acting district prosecutor in Slovyansk, a government-controlled city in the Donetsk region, said that he had opened a criminal investigation last month into whether RFE/RL journalists interfered with Arestova's work.
However, the Prosecutor-General's Office said on July 27 that the authorities had dropped the investigation "due to the lack of evidence of a criminal violation."
The investigation had been opened following a complaint in which Arestova accused RFE/RL journalists of "interference in the administration of justice" with the aim of discrediting her.
In her complaint to Ukraine's Higher Council of Justice and Prosecutor-General's Office, she claimed without evidence that a Schemes journalist working on the story "actively cooperates with the aggressor country," meaning Russia, transmits information to Russian intelligence services, and "carries out illegal surveillance."
RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service denied the allegations.
The Schemes findings come amid heightened scrutiny of public officials for ties with Russia as Moscow's full-scale invasion rages on 17 months after it began.
In October 2022, a Supreme Court judge, Bohdan Lvov, was removed from office after a Schemes investigation revealed he had concealed his Russian citizenship and real estate from government declarations.
In a 2021 disciplinary proceeding against another judge, Yulia Pereyaslovska, for allegedly acquiring Russian citizenship in Crimea, the Higher Council of Justice, the only state body that can terminate a judge's powers, called dual citizenship for a judge "a direct violation of the main constitutional principles and foundations of the state" that "inevitably undermines the authority of justice and calls into question the observance of the rule of law in Ukraine." Pereyaslovska is no longer a judge.
Data obtained from Russia's passport registry shows that a passport for Arestova, originally a registered resident of Crimea, was issued on April 10, 2014, roughly three weeks after the Kremlin claimed to have made the Ukrainian peninsula part of Russia -- an assertion that was widely rejected around the world. As part of its seizure of Crimea, Russia granted citizenship to permanent Crimean residents who had not officially stated within a month of the takeover that they wished to preserve "their original citizenship."
Schemes found no official documents that indicate that Arestova, a Ukrainian citizen since 1999, ever expressed that wish. As of July 13, when the Schemes report was published, the Russian Interior Ministry had not voided Arestova's Russian passport.
Article 126 of the Ukrainian Constitution specifies foreign citizenship as grounds for removing a judge from office.
Yet information from a database of hacked Russian flight information indicates that, about a month after receiving a Russian passport, Arestova used it to fly to Moscow on May 11, 2014, from Simferopol, Crimea's regional capital, and to return to Crimea three days later.
Ukrainian law enforcement officers provided Schemes with data that showed Arestova spent 255 days in occupied Crimea between 2018 and January 2022. While there, she apparently used her Russian passport at least once for a COVID-19 test in Crimea's largest city, Sevastopol, according to a 2022 document leak from the Russian laboratory Gemotest.
Gemotest said that, unlike other tests, an original Russian passport is required to take the coronavirus test. This condition is also specified on the laboratory's website.
The website of Russia's Federal Tax Service also shows that Arestova has a taxpayer identification number linked to her Russian passport.
In denying she has Russian citizenship, Arestova attributed her signature on a 2014 Russian passport application to a forgery.
"I do not have Russian citizenship. I only know that I lived in Crimea and was registered there, and worked in the court, and, therefore, such a passport may have actually been issued to me," she said in a phone interview. "Because, if I'm not mistaken, all [Ukrainian] citizens who lived in Crimea and who were registered there at the time of annexation were all recognized as Russian citizens."
But Russian passport applications require signatures for completion. The file Schemes obtained from Rospasport, the Russian passport registry, shows a signature and handwriting that resembles Arestova's signature and handwriting from four Ukrainian judicial documents available online.
In a 2018 professional assessment, Arestova denied to the Higher Qualification Commission of Judges, the Ukrainian judicial system's standards body, that she had foreign citizenship. She repeated that denial in a 2019 application for a judgeship on the Kyiv district Administrative Court.
Arestova acknowledged that she traveled regularly to Russian-occupied Crimea, saying that her parents were gravely ill and she needed to visit them. She claimed that the Higher Qualification Commission of Judges accepted her explanation and she asserted that she only received COVID-19 tests on Ukrainian-controlled territory.
Arestova is not the only Ukrainian judge who has traveled to Crimea despite the Russian occupation. A January 2023 Schemes investigation showed that Yaroslav Vasylenko, a judge for Ukraine's Sixth Appeals Administrative Court, had traveled there 25 times, including for recreation, since Russian forces invaded the peninsula in March 2014. He remains a judge.
Referring to Vasylenko, anti-corruption expert Halyna Chyzhyk, a former coordinator of the Public Integrity Council, which advises the Higher Qualification Commission, said that by traveling to Crimea and making payments in Russian rubles, a judge, who "has the power to make decisions in the name of Ukraine," is recognizing "the jurisdiction of the Russian Federation in Crimea." Such trips raise "big questions," she added.
Vasylenko refused to talk with Schemes.
In Arestova's case, the State Bureau of Investigations (DBR), which handles criminal probes of judges and other senior public figures, also has questions.
The DBR confirmed to Schemes on June 23 that it had been conducting a preliminary investigation into Arestova for the past two years to determine whether she could be charged with forgery and putting false information into a court-document-management system as part of a group conspiracy. The document registering the probe also referred to treason, but the DBR said it did not have sufficient evidence to suspect her of committing any of the criminal offenses covered by the process.
Arestova, who says both her house and place of employment have been searched, told Schemes that she has filed a complaint with the Kyiv city district Administrative Court against the DBR. "The authorities fabricated a case against me in order to interfere with the court's activities -- to follow me, to violate the rights I was given," she alleged to Schemes. The DBR did not respond to this claim.
Arestova, a native of Russia's Far Eastern Kamchatka region, has no public record of prior disputes with the Zelenskiy administration.
After becoming a Ukrainian citizen in 1999 and dropping her Russian citizenship, she began working in Sevastopol in 2001 as an assistant prosecutor before becoming the deputy chief of staff of a local district administrative court. Former President Viktor Yanukovych, now a fugitive in Russia, appointed her to the bench in 2013; she was reappointed in 2019 under ex-President Petro Poroshenko, now head of the European Solidarity opposition party.
Schemes contacted the chairman of the Higher Council of Justice, Hryhoriy Usyk, to ask whether he or the council previously knew that Arestova had Russian citizenship and, if so, how this status would affect her work as a judge.
In response, the High Council of Justice said that it had asked the Ukrainian Security Service to establish whether Arestova has Russian citizenship.
The next court session involving Arestova is scheduled for August 10.