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Investigations Ukraine in retrospective: Journalists’ safety vs Political Environment

In Sheremet murder investigation, suspects lack alibis but police lack evidence

Editor’s Note: This story is part of a special project by the Kyiv Post, “Dying for Truth,” a series of stories documenting violence against journalists in Ukraine. Since the country gained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, more than 50 journalists have been killed across Ukraine — including eight since 2014. 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 the donor. All the stories in the series can be found here.

An original article is available on the Kyiv Post website. 

When on Dec. 12 police announced that they arrested suspects in the 2016 murder of journalist Pavel Sheremet, it came as long-anticipated progress in the investigation that appeared dead for 3.5 years.

However, it soon became clear that police don’t have strong evidence against the three suspects: a musician serving in the military, a military nurse, and a children’s surgeon. All three deny their involvement.

The case quickly became a bone of contention between authorities and the country’s large community of war veterans and volunteers helping the army, who believe that the case was staged by the unpopular Interior Minister Arsen Avakov.

Suspects, finally

Ukrainian-Belarusian journalist Sheremet was killed by a car bomb in the center of Kyiv on July 20, 2016. The investigators immediately started working on the scene of one of the most notorious crimes committed in Ukraine in the past several years. Then-President Petro Poroshenko and Prosecutor General Yuriy Lutsenko promised to make Sheremet’s case a top priority.

Almost immediately authorities released CCTV footage that showed a man and a woman who planted an explosive device under Sheremet’s car on the night before the explosion.

However, in more than three years, the authorities haven’t managed to identify them, let alone find the organizers of the murder.

In 2017, they classified the case. They broke the silence on Dec. 12, at an emergency briefing at the police headquarters in Kyiv.

In the presence of President Volodymyr Zelensky, General Prosecutor of Ukraine Rouslan Riaboshapka, and Interior Minister Avakov, police announced that they arrested suspects in Sheremet’s case and disclosed their names. They were three women and two men, all veterans of the war in the Donbas or volunteers helping the army. All of them were well-known among the veteran community. Only three of them ended up being officially made suspects in the murder of Sheremet. The other two are under arrest in a similar case but police suspect they played a role in Sheremet’s murder.

Donbas war veteran Andriy Antonenko, a lead singer of the rock band Riffmaster, is a suspected organizer of the murder. Yulia Kuzmenko, a children’s cardio surgeon and a prominent volunteer helping the army, is suspected to be the woman who attached the bomb to the journalist’s car and detonated the device remotely the next morning. Finally, a servicewoman Yana Dugar is suspected of helping prepare the crime – the police believe she was caught on camera photographing the location of CCTV cameras days before the murder.

Also, police suspect that war veterans Vladyslav Hryshchenko and Inna Hryshchenko, who were arrested as suspects in a different attempted car bomb attack, could have been involved in the attack on Sheremet, but they weren’t officially charged.

At the Dec. 12 briefing, the police played recordings of phone calls that suggested that some of the suspects were involved in something illegal, showed phone records that proved the suspects weren’t using their phones at the time of the murder, and said that experts concluded that their appearance resembles the people caught on CCTV footage.

For many, it wasn’t convincing. The low level of public trust in the National Police and Avakov contributed to doubts on whether the investigation was fair.

Some suspected a connection between the sudden arrests and the fact that in October Zelensky said he set a deadline for all the ministers in the government and demanded to provide results in their areas, including solving high-profile crimes, by the end of 2019, or be fired from their posts.

Avakov denied that progress in Sheremet’s case is connected to the deadline for ministers on Dec. 12. Zelensky was vexed at the suggestion that solving this murder was his condition for Avakov to keep his job.

“I don’t make deals on blood,” he told journalists on Dec. 12.

Ukrainian investigators examine the scene of a car bombing that killed journalist Pavel Sheremet at 7:45 a.m. on July 20, 2016, as he drove to work. (Volodymyr Petrov)

What police used to say

For more than three years the police were providing minimum information about the progress in Sheremet’s murder, citing the secrecy of the investigation. The case had no suspects and no arrests.

The last time police reported about the progress in Sheremet’s case before the Dec. 12 briefing was in July, on the third anniversary of the murder.

Back then, newly-elected President Zelensky summoned the top law enforcement officials to his office to hear their report on the progress of the investigation. He was satisfied.

“I saw a lot of materials. I want to tell you that, from what I’ve seen, I can say that we’re going to have the result. I can’t tell you how long it will take, but the people who did this will be found,” Zelensky said on July 23.

Journalists were told that the crime was not yet solved and the investigators couldn’t yet name suspected perpetrators or organizers.

But according to Avakov, back then the police were already investigating the five suspects, and that’s what they showed to Zelensky.

The version

At the Dec. 12 briefing, the police said Antonenko used his connections in the veterans’ community to recruit Kuzmenko and Dugar to help him murder Sheremet.

Although the police said they were still looking for the possible organizers of the murder, their current version says that the three attacked Sheremet “to destabilize the country” because they were fond of “nationalistic ideas and the idea of the superiority of the Aryan race.” It isn’t clear how that would lead them to attack a Belarusian journalist.

According to the police, Kuzmenko went to the scene with Antonenko and planted the bomb under Sheremet’s car, while Dugar was scouting the crime scene on the days before, taking pictures of the CCTV cameras in the area.

The Hryshchenkos, who are under arrest in a different assassination attempt, might have produced the bomb and supplied it to the trio, but the police don’t have enough evidence to charge them.

The phones of the suspects were unused or switched off during the night when the bomb was planted.

If found guilty Kuzmenko and Antonenko face life in prison each. Dugar can face up to 15 years in prison.

A collage shows Donbas war veteran Andriy Antonenko(R) in court on Dec. 23 and CCTV footage of a man (L) who helped plant a bomb under journalist Pavel Sheremet’s car 0n the night of July 19, 2016. The police stated that Antonenko is the man from the footage.

How police got there

To support their version, the National Police disclosed some details of their 3.5-year-long investigation. The police said they inspected videos from more than 200 CCTV cameras and processed 80 million of phone connections in the area. The breakthrough came when they started looking at other car bombings: There had been 35 of them in Ukraine since 2014.

They found two cases interesting for the investigation – the 2015 bombing of the power transmission towers in Kherson Oblast and 2018 failed assassination attempt of a businessman in Ivano-Frankivsk Oblast.

On a video from the 2015 bombing police spotted a man wearing a black hooded sweater with an image printed on the back in white. Similar clothing was worn by one of Sheremet’s assassins on the night they planted the bomb.

The police searched for the man among the friends of the veteran who posted the video. They found Antonenko, whose Facebook photos show him frequently wearing similar sweaters.

The police then learned that Antonenko lives near the crime scene. Finally, expertise comparing the facial features and gait matched Antonenko to the man on the CCTV footage.

Moreover, during the Dec. 12 search in Antonenko’s apartment and office, they found a shell of a mine of the same type that was used to create the explosive device that killed Sheremet. Later the police studied the mine and found a trace of the hexogen-consisting substance of the same production line that was used in the bomb that killed Sheremet.

In parallel, a married couple of war veterans Inna and Vladyslav Hryshchenko captured the police’s attention.

In 2018, an assassination of a businessman from Ivano-Frankivsk Oblast failed. The assassins had not properly attached the explosive device under his car and it fell down. The businessman found it and called the police. The police compared this bomb with the one planted under Sheremet’s car and concluded they were similar.

The collage shows Yulia Kuzmenko (R), children’s cardio surgeon and military volunteer and a woman (L), who planted an explosive device under Sheremet’s car on the night of July 19, 2016. The police stated Kuzmenko and the woman is the same person. (National Police of Ukraine/Kuzmenko Facebook)

The Hryshchenkos’ DNA was found on the bomb in Ivano-Frankivsk, leading to their arrest.

At this point, the police started suspecting they were involved in the attack on the Sheremet three years earlier.

They established that the couple had a friend, a veteran named Ivan Vakulenko, who drove them from Kyiv to Ivano-Frankivsk in 2018, allegedly for the assassination attempt.

To crack them, the police tapped their phones and sent Vakulenko a summon for questioning in Sheremet’s case to scare them. However, it didn’t go as expected: Vakulenko killed himself.

The police released parts of the phone conversations showing Hryshchenkos worried about Vakulenko. After he killed himself, Inna Hryshchenko told her husband that “it is for the better.”

The Hryshchenkos didn’t explicitly deny their involvement in the murder, but Inna Hryshchenko said she didn’t know the other three suspects back when Sheremet was killed, having met them 2018-2019.

Antonenko, Kuzmenko, and Dugar deny the charges.

The collage shows Yana Dugar, military medic and contract servicewoman of the Ukrainian Army (R) and a woman (L), who took a picture of one of the CCTV cameras in the area, where Ukrainian-Belarussian journalist Pavel Sheremet used to live, on July 15, 2016. Sheremet died in a car blast in Kyiv on July 20, 2016. Police stated Dugar was the woman, taking pictures of CCTV cameras several days before the murder. (Courtesy)

Alibi

Antonenko, Kuzmenko, and Dugar said that the fact that the police announced their names at a televised briefing with the presence of the president and other top officials, made them guilty without a fair trial.

Their arrest burst an outrage in the veterans’ community.

Their friends and lawyers started looking for proof that the three weren’t guilty.

Dugar is the only one who has something of an alibi. A lawmaker Yana Zinkevych published a document signed by a military commander that certifies that Dugar was on duty in the Donbas war zone when Sheremet was killed.

Kuzmenko said that on the night of July 19, when she supposedly planted a bomb, she was at home with her son and her parents, who were visiting. During that time, she was off work and had just returned from a vacation in Odesa Oblast days before.

“They have zero proof against me. It is the attempt to discredit the volunteer movement, using me as the example,” Kuzmenko said in a statement published by her lawyer Vladyslav Dobosh on Dec. 18.

On the day after the murder, Kuzmenko visited Antonenko’s band’s concert in Kyiv.

According to her lawyer, she and Antonenko met in January 2016. Kuzmenko allegedly was a witness of the car accident involving Antonenko’s wife and son. Antonenko published a Facebook post searching for witnesses and she responded to the call. The lawyer published screenshots of their messages discussing the accident.

The police, meanwhile, suggest that Antonenko met Kuzmenko through her partner, Petro Kiyan.

The lawyer also said that Kuzmenko only met Dugar in October 2019, when they both came to the court to support the arrested Inna Hryshchenko. Kuzmenko and Hryshchenko allegedly met at a party in 2018.

Antonenko’s alibi is unclear. His lawyer Stanislav Kulyk refused to tell the Kyiv Post about Antonenko’s alibi on Dec. 20, stating it was not the right time yet. Lawyer Masi Nayyem, a friend of Antonenko, said that his family and friends say that Antonenko was at home on the night when the bomb was planted.

Polina Ivanova, Antonenko’s band’s former tour manager, told the Kyiv Post that during that time, Antonenko was busy preparing for the charity concert in Docker Pub in Kyiv on July 21, 2016. The concert meant to raise money for the Ukrainian army.

Antonenko refused to testify or help the investigation.

Nayyem used to defend Inna Hryshchenko in court but left the process after Hryshchenkos were attached to Sheremet’s case due to the conflict of interest. Nayyem knew Sheremet very well and he also is a friend of Antonenko.

Nayyem told the Kyiv Post that he can’t say whether the suspects are guilty because the police have provided only indirect evidence, and it is full of discrepancies.

Ex-serviceman of the Ukrainian army Andriy Antonenko speaks to the judge during a hearing in the Appeal Court in Kyiv, on Dec. 23, 2019. Police suspect Antonenko in organizing the 2016 murder of Ukrainian-Belarussian journalist Pavel Sheremet. (Kostyantyn Chernichkin)

Discrepancies

Indeed, the evidence police provided to the public is full of inconsistencies.

For example, the police stated that a man wearing a black hoodie, seen in the video showing the bombing of power towers in Kherson in 2015, was Antonenko. As proof, they provided a screenshot showing the man from the back.

However, Dobosh published another video from the 2015 bombing of power towers in Kherson, where it could be clearly seen that the man in black was not Antonenko.

Moreover, there was a mismatch between Antonenko and the man seen on CCTV footage helping plant the bomb under Sheremet’s car. The man on the footage had a goatee, while Antonenko wore a short boxed beard at the time — it could be seen on the photos from his concert the next day.

Also, the investigators claimed that Antonenko was an ultra-nationalist. However, his Facebook posts show the man was mocking the image of “Ukrainian fascists”, created by Russian propaganda, and also saying he was part-Jewish.

Also in the note of suspicion the investigators wrote Kuzmenko was unemployed, so the fact that she had a car and a house in Kyiv Oblast was suspicious. However, Kuzmenko was and still is officially employed as one of the leading cardio surgeons of the Scientific Medical Center of children’s cardiology and cardio surgery of the Health Ministry of Ukraine.

Problematic expertise

According to police, the forensic expertise of facial features, gait, and movements, made by both Kyiv Scientific Research Institute of Forensic Expertise and a British forensic expert Ivan Birch became the key evidence matching the three suspects to the people in the CCTV footage.

However, the police didn’t say it all.

Journalists of Slidstvo.Info investigative agency obtained the results of the expertise made by Birch. The police announced that experts concluded that the woman who planted the device was likely Kuzmenko, and the woman who took photos of CCTV cameras – Dugar. In fact, Birch reached a different conclusion that both women caught on CCTV cameras were probably the same person, contradicting the police’s version.

Furthermore, Ukrainian forensic experts and their British colleague signed several contradicting conclusions, the reporters said. Thus, psychological expertise reads that people on CCTV videos match the suspects, while facial features expertise can’t name them identical, and the expertise of gait provided conventionally sufficient evidence of their resemblance.

The police stood by their evidence, claiming that Birch’s conclusions that contradicted their version were his assumptions. When he made this assumption, according to the Ukrainian police, he didn’t have all the footage at hand. Later, when the police provided him with additional CCTV footage, both Ukrainian experts and Birch did the second expertise that supported the evidence against the suspects, according to the National Police.

Ivan Birch did not respond to the request for comment for this story. Kyiv Scientific Research Institute of Forensic Expertise press service confirmed to the Kyiv Post that Ukrainian experts indeed worked with Birch, but refused to tell any details of the cooperation citing the secrecy of the investigation.

This wasn’t the first time that journalists of Slidstvo.Info uncovered the police’s sloppiness in investigating Sheremet’s murder. One year after the attack, Slidstvo.Info and Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting released a documentary, “Killing Pavel,” which uncovered that investigators failed to question witnesses and that videos from four CCTV cameras in the area were lost.

What’s next

Both Kuzmenko and Antonenko were arrested for two months on Dec. 13, until the next court session planned for February. Dugar was put under a full-time house arrest, also until February.

All three tried to appeal the rulings, but their appeals were turned down.

Kuzmenko’s lawyers asked to release her on bail as she needed to perform surgeries. Also, she agreed to cooperate with the investigation. Several dozen people volunteered to be guarantors of her bail.

The first appeal court sessions on Antonenko and Kuzmenko planned for Dec. 20 were postponed due to the absence of prosecutors. Kuzmenko refused to leave the courtroom voluntarily, demanding that she gets a hearing. Kuzmenko’s supporters blocked the Appeal Court of Kyiv hall and demanded the prosecutors to arrive. The National Guard of Ukraine had to come to the court and take Kuzmenko out by force.

The hearing eventually took place on Dec. 24. The judge refused to satisfy Kuzmenko’s appeal and left her behind bars. Antonenko’s appeal was denied on Dec. 23, but another one is scheduled for Dec. 26.

Both Kuzmenko and Antonenko filed lawsuits against Riaboshapka, Zelensky and Avakov for defaming them and violating the presumption of innocence.