Investigations Dying for Truth

He revealed police corruption in Donbas. Then he was killed.

Editor’s Note: This story is part of a special project by the Kyiv Post, “Dying for Truth,” an online database and series of stories documenting violence against journalists in Ukraine. Since 1991, when the country gained independence from the Soviet Union, more than 50 journalists have been killed across Ukraine. Most of the crimes have been poorly investigated and the killers remain unpunished. The project is supported by the Justice for Journalists Foundation. Content is independent of donor.

Full article is availble on the Kyiv Post web-site. 

As he was leaving home on July 3, 2001, Ukrainian journalist Ihor Aleksandrov told his wife it was going to be a good day.

One hour later, several men attacked and beat him with baseball bats. He later died in the hospital.

Aleksandrov, a well-known journalist and government critic in Donetsk Oblast, became the second prominent journalist murdered in Ukraine in less than a year, proving the country to be a dangerous environment for the press.

Ten months earlier, Georgiy Gongadze, the founder of independent online news site Ukrainska Pravda, had been kidnapped and murdered by high-ranking police officials. The brazen murder shook up the country, especially after leaked wiretap recordings suggested that then-President Leonid Kuchma had given the signal to target Gongadze, his frequent critic.

Kuchma survived the scandal, but not easily. For several months, street protesters demanded that he resign. He had to fire several top officials. He escaped prosecution but his reputation was forever tainted.

So when another journalist was murdered, both the public and authorities paid attention. Kuchma created an 800-person investigative task force. The murder took place in the eastern region ruled by Kuchma’s loyal protégé, then-governor Viktor Yanukovych.

That investigation didn’t go smoothly.

In less than a month, police arrested the supposed murderer. It was a homeless man who claimed he had attacked Aleksandrov, mistaking him for someone else. The case fell apart in court. The judge ruled that there was insufficient evidence and the suspect was instructed what to say.

The investigation of Aleksandrov’s murder highlighted the fraudulent practices and inefficiency of Ukraine’s police. Ironically, Alexandrov’s last investigations had exposed police corruption.

A second investigation of his murder was more successful. It found that a local crime boss ordered the attack on Aleksandrov for helping whistleblowers expose local police who conspired with his gang.

Five years after the journalist’s murder, his killers were convicted. It took six years more to convict the police officers who tried to pass a homeless man off as the killer.

‘Always so busy’

Aleksandrov was a prominent journalist in Donetsk Oblast.

He lived in Sloviansk, a city of 111,000 people some 670 kilometers east of Kyiv. Many years after his murder, his hometown became famous for something else: It was the first town that the Russia-backed militants occupied in spring 2014, launching a war that has since killed over 13,000 people.

In Sloviansk, Aleksandrov was the founder and a host of the independent TV channel TOR. He ran a live talk show “Bez retushi” (“No retouching”), where together with his guests — local politicians, experts, and whistleblowers — he discussed both regional and national news.

For a local TV station, TOR was big. It produced 24 exclusive programs and broadcasted not only in Sloviansk, but everywhere in Donetsk, Luhansk and Kharkiv oblasts.

Ihor Aleksandrov (L) talks to two former officers of the Kramatorsk Organized Crime Unit, Oleg Solodun and Mykhailo Serbin. They are whistleblowers who exposed local police in ties with organized crime groups on air in the third and last episode of Aleksandrov’s live show “Bez Retushi” (No Retouching), broadcast by the Sloviansk TV channel TOR on April 13, 2001. (Courtesy of Sloviansk Score Book)

“He was always so busy,” Lyudmila Aleksandrova, the journalist’s widow, told the Kyiv Post on Aug. 23, 2019. “Ihor had a notebook where he wrote down all the tasks he failed to do today to return to them tomorrow.”

More than 18 years have passed since the day she lost her husband, but she still remembers that day in all its details.

“As usual, he left for work very early, at 6:45 a. m. Ihor was upset because he didn’t complete everything on his to-do list for the day before,” Aleksadrova recalled. “He tried to cheer himself up by saying that that day would be a lot better than yesterday. Those were his last words to me before he left.”

One hour later, as Aleksandrov entered the office building where TOR was based, two men attacked and beat him up with baseball bats.

His colleagues found him covered in blood. After four days in a coma, Aleksandrov died on July 7, 2001. He was 45 years old. He left behind a wife and two children.

In the Donbas, Aleksandrov had the reputation of a prominent critic of local law enforcement agencies and politicians. In 1999, a local court had ordered him to pay Hr 2,000 and banned him from doing journalism for five years — an unprecedented ruling that he successfully appealed — for calling local lawmaker Oleksandr Leshchinsky “the alcohol king of Donbas” on his show.

Before the murder, Aleksandrov had been working on the fourth part of an investigative series dedicated to Oleg Solodun and Mykhailo Serbin, whistleblowers from the Kramatorsk Organized Crime Unit. They exposed local police’s corruption and ties to an organized crime group behind several contract killings.

The fourth episode was supposed to prove the authenticity of wiretap recordings published by Serbin and Solodun. The recordings proved that their boss Volodymyr Bantush, head of Interior Ministry’s Organized Crime Unit, was close to Kostyantyn Yavorovskiy, a former cop-turned-gangster. Yavorovskiy organized the murder of a crime boss from an influential local gang, the “17th Precinct.”

Story that killed

“Donbas is a region with its own mentality and rules,” reads “The Sloviansk Score,” a book published in 2017. The book covers the mafia gangs in Sloviansk and is dedicated to Aleksandrov’s memory.
Crime took deep root in Donetsk Oblast in the 1990s and early 2000s. Gangsters were seizing local enterprises and firms, bribing local police and murdering competitors. Gang wars filled the streets of Donbas cities with blood and mass shootings.

Solodun and Serbin knew everything about the organized crime of Donbas. Both used to work in the Interior Ministry’s office in Kramatorsk in the Organized Crime Unit. Their department was supposed to combat organized crime.

Instead, Serbin and Solodun discovered that their boss, Bantush, had a close friendship with a former police officer Yavorovskiy, who was part of the so-called 17th Precinct, a powerful local gang named after a neighborhood in Kramatorsk. The gang was influential in the 1990s. Solodun and Serbin began to investigate Yavorovskiy behind their boss’ back.

Their source in the gang helped them obtain the so-called “Dusseldorf Cassette” — wiretapping made by crime boss Dmytro German, who lived in Germany. The recording featured Yavorovskiy and German talking about the 1998 internal gang conflict in the 17th Precinct that led to the murder of one of the gang’s leaders, Igor Yermakov.

On the tape, a man, supposedly Yavorovskiy, said that Oleksandr Rybak, a businessman from Sloviansk and also a member of the gang, contracted him to murder Yermakov.

Rybak was known in the region for corporate raiding. Together with the 17th Precinct gang, he seized several plants and enterprises in Donbas. The companies were united under the umbrella of a holding company called Ukrliga.

“He was a very influential businessman in Sloviansk. People called him the ‘ambassador’ of Donetsk gangsters in our city,” Aleksandrova recalls.

After Serbin and Solodun got the wiretapping from their source in the gang, a man named Oleksandr Kulya, they came to Bantush and told him about their findings. But instead of supporting the investigation, Bantush fired both of them. The official reason was “systematic professional misconduct and unsanctioned contacts with organized crime groups.” They left law enforcement in May 1999.

Former Kramatorsk police officer Kostyantyn Yavorovskiy (L) poses for a group photo with his colleagues from the 17th Precinct gang – Dmytro German, Oleg Bezzaponnyi, Igor Yermak in Spain. Yavorovskiy was sentenced to 13 years in prison for ordering contract killings, including that of Ihor Alexandrov. (Sloviansk Score Book)

But the two men didn’t want to stop. They went to Kyiv, to inform the Security Service of Ukraine, known as SBU, and Prosecutor General’s Office about police corruption in Sloviansk. But they say the authorities ignored them. Even the Interior Ministry’s confirmation that the wiretapping was authentic didn’t help.

Bantush denied all accusations in the comments to the local press. He said his subordinates had conspired to squeeze him out of his post.

The journalist interferes

Soon, one of the whistleblowers, Serbin, was arrested and accused of drug possession. However, a court dropped the case within a year.

The other whistleblower, Solodun, feared for his life. He expected that the mafia boss they exposed would kill him. After all, in March 2000, Kulya, who gave them the “Dusseldorf Cassette,” was killed in Sloviansk.

That’s when Aleksandrov stepped in. He reached out to Solodun and Serbin in August 2000, after he read a story about the whistleblowers in the local newspaper People’s Will. By that time, they had been fighting for justice for a year.

The author of the story was lawmaker Oleksiy Shekhovtsov, who represented Kramatorsk in the Ukrainian palriament. He was the only person with any power who believed Solodun and Serbin and tried to help.

Aleksandrov invited the two whistleblowers to talk about their investigation live on his show.

“After we started talking on Aleksandrov’s TV show, it became too stupid and obvious for the 17th Precinct gang to kill us,” Solodun told the Kyiv Post.

The first show featuring them aired on Sept. 22, 2000. The local police didn’t react.

Aleksandrov was frustrated. To amplify the message, he organized a press conference for the whistleblowers. It worked. Many national TV stations reported on the police corruption scandal in Sloviansk.

Aleksandrov was satisfied. He had a second show about Serbin’s and Solodun’s investigation two weeks later. During that show, the whistleblowers accused Yavorovskiy and Rybak of organizing multiple contract killings. Still, there were no comments from the authorities.

There was a different kind of reaction, though.

A couple of months later, Serbin and Solodun realized they were being surveilled and told Aleksandrov about it. He helped them again, organizing another press conference, this time in Kyiv, where they told the press about the pressure they were facing.

In April 13, 2001 Aleksandrov aired the third episode, where he talked to the whistleblowers about the “Dusseldorf Cassette.”

He started working on the fourth show, trying to prove the authenticity of the tape. But he never finished the investigation. In July 2001, three months after the last show on police corruption, Aleksandrov was beaten to death in the hall of his TV station.

Fake killer

Aleksandrov was buried on July 9, a week after the attack.

On that day, Yanukovych, the region’s governor and Ukraine’s future president, celebrated his birthday.

A few days earlier, Yanukovych and Donetsk Oblast Prosecutor Viktor Pshonka — who would become the Ukraine’s prosecutor general under President Yanukovych — promised Kuchma to personally control the investigation into the journalist’s murder.

“Yanukovych invited us to Donetsk to visit him a day or so before his birthday. That’s why I remember,” Aleksandrova said.

By the time of the visit, she and her son Oleksiy Aleksandrov, as well as one of the whistleblowers, had already publicly claimed that Aleksandrov was killed because of his shows about corruption in law enforcement.

“Yanukovych was the first one who told me that we were wrong,” recalls Aleksandrova. “He said it was just a tragic accident. The attacker was going for a different target. Later, prosecutors would stick to this version.”

It took less than a month to find the supposed killer. Kramatorsk police announced that the attack on Aleksandrov was an act of “hooliganism” that had nothing to do with his work.

They arrested Yuriy Veredyuk, a 42-year-old homeless man from Kramatorsk. Soon, he confessed. Veredyuk said a man paid him to attack a lawyer who had an office in the same building as Aleksandrov’s TV station. Investigators said they had no doubts that Veredyuk was guilty.

The family and the whistleblowers didn’t believe it. One of them, Solodun, gave a press conference to claim that it was businessman Oleksandr Rybak who paid to kill Aleksandrov. Rybak and his connections to the mafia were mentioned on the tapes Aleksandrov and the whistleblowers had released. (Rybak couldn’t be reached for a comment for this story. He has never commented on his role in the murder.)

Authorities didn’t pay attention to Solodun’s statement and went on with the case against the homeless man. In December 2001, five months after the murder, prosecutors passed the case to court, seeking an eight-year prison sentence for the man.

But Donetsk judge Ivan Korchistiy wasn’t convinced. He ruled the accused not guilty and said he believed the case was staged. The homeless man was released. He had spent 10 months in pre-trial jail for a crime he didn’t commit.

Yuriy Veredyuk, a homeless man from Kramatorsk local cops tried to stage as the killer of Ihor Aleksandrov in 2001, reacts during a court session in Sloviansk on Jan. 28, 2002. (Ukrinform)

“It was such a shock and relief. We were so tired of that orchestrated investigation,” Aleksandrova says.

Prosecutors protested but the judge ruled that they must re-investigate the case.

Soon, the case lost an important witness. Veredyuk, the homeless man initially accused of the murder, died. Later, one of the police officers working on the case was found guilty of poisoning him.

In the next two years, Security Service of Ukraine arrested 12 suspects. All of them were members of the 17th Precinct gang.

Their trial ended in July 2006. Five of them were convicted of the murder of Aleksandrov. The other seven members of the 17th Precinct were sentenced for other crimes.

Businessman Oleksandr Rybak was sentenced to 15 years in prison as the organizer of the murder. According to investigators, it cost him just $5,000 to have the journalist killed.

His younger brother, Dmytro Rybak, got 11 years in prison for serving as a middle-man in the murder. On his brother’s request, he contracted three friends to attack Aleksandrov. In the court, he said they didn’t want to kill the journalist, only to scare him. The court didn’t believe it.

The two attackers, Oleksandr Onyshko and Ruslan Tursunov, were sentenced to 12 and six years in prison, respectively.

The third perpetrator, Sergiy Korytskiy, didn’t take part in the attack but waited for the killers in the car. He was sentenced to three years in prison.

Former cop Yavorovskiy, who is allegedly the one speaking on the wiretap recording at the center of the scandal, got 13 years in prison for organizing multiple contract killings, including that of Aleksandrov.
Solodun said that the Rybak brothers were serving their sentences on the occupied territories of Donbas.

“I have information that Russian-backed separatists released Oleksandr Rybak and he is in Moscow now. I don’t know where his younger brother is. Most likely he is with his brother,” Solodun said.
None of the people convicted for Aleksandrov’s murder in 2006 could be reached for comment for this story.

Dirty cops

Aleksandrova said she was so tired after both trials that she had no strength to find out what had happened to the police officers who falsified the investigation of her husband’s murder.

Bantush, the police boss who allegedly had ties to local mafia, left his post in the Kramatorsk Organized Crime Unit in 2002, and went into the private sector. He had never been investigated in connection to Aleksandrov’s murder. In 2006, he started working as head of the security service of the Metinvest Group, a steel-and-mining corporation that belongs to oligarch Rinat Akhmetov. Later, he was a member of the regional councils in Dnipropetrovsk and Kryviy Rih elected on the ballot of Yanukovych’s Party of Regions.

The last time he surfaced in the news was in 2017. The Chesno Civic Movement watchdog mentioned that Bantush bought 18 apartments in Kramatorsk in 2014–2016. He ended up in the report because he was the son-in-law of Donetsk Oblast Court of Appeals Judge Lyudmila Gruitska.

Bantush could not be reached for comment for this story. Solodun said his former boss still lives in Kramatorsk.

However, investigators arrested another high-profile local cop from Kramatorsk in connection to Aleksandrov’s case. In January 2004, the Prosecutor General’s Office of Ukraine started investigating Ihor Kryvolapov, deputy head of the Kramatorsk Criminal Police as a suspect in falsifying evidence in Aleksadrov’s case.

He spent five years in a pre-trial detention center before the 2009 trial. During that time, prosecutors arrested three other police officers in connection to Aleksandrov’s case. One of them, Colonel Oleksandr Herasymenko, was a suspect in poisoning Veredyuk. Herasymenko denied that charge in an open letter published by several Donetsk Oblast media at the time. He said his case was falsified by the Prosecutor General’s Office.

The cover of “The Sloviansk Score,” a book covering the Sloviansk and Kramatorsk mafia and their ties to local police, written by journalist Serhiy Garmash, former Organized Crime Unit officer Oleg Solodun and ex-lawmaker Oleksiy Shekhovtsov in memory of journalist Ihor Aleksandrov. It was published in 2017.

In February 2009, the Zaporizhzhia Court of Appeals released Kryvolapov and three other police officers from prison due to a lack of evidence against them. However, three years later, they were arrested again.

In March 2012, a court sentenced Kryvolapov to seven years in prison for falsifying evidence and witness testimony in Aleksandrov’s case.

Herasymenko was sentenced to 13 years in prison for poisoning Veredyuk, the Prosecutor General’s press service reported. Two other police officers, Albert Vinnychuk and Serhiy Shlomin, were sentenced to eight years in prison for assisting Herasymenko. They promised Veredyuk an apartment and a car for a confession in Aleksandrov’s murder.

In January 2013, a court released Kryvolapov from custody on time served both in pre-trail detention and prison. Furthermore, in October 2018, Kryvolapov won a case against Ukraine in the European Court of Human Rights.

The court ruled that Ukraine must pay him 20,000 euro for moral damages for violating his rights in the course of the investigation. The court said the investigation was too long, Kryvolapov’s arrest in pre-trial detention was unjustified, and he had faced a campaign of slanderous coverage in the media.

But that wasn’t the last time a Donetsk Oblast journalist would be killed for investigating the mafia. In November 2014, journalist Oleksandr Kuchynskyi and his wife were killed at their dacha outside Sloviansk.

Kuchynskyi was the editor of the Criminal Express newspaper and had written two books: “Chronicle of Donetsk Banditism” and “Anthology of a Contract Killing.”