The government says it realizes the problem. Last year, President Viktor Yanukovych called for a higher acquittal rate and parliament adopted a new criminal code that seeks to boost the rights of the defense and curtail some of the prosecutors' powers in line with EU standards. But legal experts say it will not succeed in reforming Ukraine's judicial system unless judges are made truly independent from the executive branch and paid more so that there's less of a temptation to take bribes — seen as rampant in the court system.
Nikolishen's lawyer, Ihor Ivanov, says the charges against his client stem solely from the testimony of other defendants in the case, which he claims was obtained under torture.
Nikolishen, now undergoing treatment for the stage-four lymphoma that was left untreated in jail for more than a year, says he has a firm alibi in at least three of the thefts he has been charged with; in one case he was defending a client in court when the theft took place.
In addition, he claims that plainclothes police beat him and kicked him in the genitals for hours to try to force him to confess. "They didn't succeed," he said. "I had nothing to confess."
Kiev police refused to comment on Nikolishen's allegations of torture or explain why they filed charges against a lawyer in violation of the law. The policeman who initially charged Nikolishen has faced unspecified disciplinary measures, according to prosecutors.
Prosecutor Yulia Dmytriyenko would say only that the evidence against Nikolishen includes testimony by witnesses and other defendants in the case.
"As for the motive — its presence or absence — you should ask the defendant," Dmytriyenko said. "I cannot make any assumptions about what the motives could have been for Nikolishen to take part in these crimes."
Alexis Anagnostakis, a human rights expert with the European Criminal Bar Association, condemned Nikolishen's treatment, saying it undermines respect for lawyers, a fundamental principle in any democratic society.
"Arbitrary prosecution, detention or conviction of a lawyer relating to his or her professional duties should not be tolerated in a European democratic society," Anagnostakis said.