The journalist Pavlo Sheremet was killed in Kyiv on July 20, 2016. He was on his way to work at the radio station Vesti when the car he was in exploded — a remotely-activated bomb had been planted under the car floor, where it would go off at the killers’ signal. The president of Ukraine at the time, Petro Poroshenko, said that finding Sheremet’s killers was a “matter of honor” for him and promised to do everything in his power to speed the investigation along. However, the investigation stalled while Poroshenko remained in office, and only after Volodymyr Zelensky assumed the presidency did the police announce the first results of the investigation and turn the matter over to prosecutors.
Zaborona is conducting its own investigation of our colleague’s murder, as well as tracking the case’s progress through the courts. To mark the fifth anniversary of Sheremet’s death, we revisit the most important questions surrounding the murder — and the answers are not comforting.
Are the organizers of the murder known?
In December 2019, the police announced the name of a single organizer, Andriy Antonenko. Antonenko is a member of the Special Operations Forces and was a participant in the war in Donbas, as well as a rock musician known by the stage name ‘Riffmaster’. However, police soon determined that Antonenko’s involvement was as a hired killer, with those ultimately responsible still unknown.
Currently, the matter of who ordered and organized the murder is being handled separately.
Three suspects have already been considered by the courts. Does that mean they’re definitely guilty?
Police detained three suspects in December 2019: aside from Antonenko, there was Yulia Kuzmenko, a pediatric surgeon and army volunteer, and nurse Yana Dugar, who also volunteered in Donbas. All three have denied any involvement with the murder. Andriy Antonenko argues that his appearance does not match that of the men caught on video, while Yulia Kuzmenko was home on the day of the murder, according to her lawyer. This is supported by data from her phone included in court filings and seen by Zaborona.
The accusations were based on the fact that, not long before Sheremet’s murder, the accused had discussed scenarios of “destabalization in the country.” At a briefing, journalists were shown part of that dialogue. In it, participants discussed how many BM-21 “Grad” truck-mounted rocket launchers would be needed to blow up Kyiv. Sheremet was not mentioned. The complete transcript shows that this was simply part of an emotional dialogue between two friends who were very critical of the government.
Furthermore, after the detention, Artem Shevchenko, the head of the Interior Ministry’s (MVS) press office, wrote in a message to Kuzmenko’s then-friend, Vasilisa Mazurchuk, that the case involved counterintelligence from the Security Services of Ukraine (SBU), and that Sheremet had been eliminated on account of his supposed activity as a ‘Russian agent’. (In a statement to Zaborona, Shevchenko denied the authenticity of the messages, saying, “anyone can make images on the internet.”)
Is it clear who benefited from the journalist’s murder?
In Antonenko’s indictment, investigators claimed that he had been motivated to gather a group of co-conspirators and organize the journalist’s murder due to being fueled by “ultranationalist ideas” such as “the greatness of the Aryan race.” Antonenko’s aim, according to this narrative, was to “make his views the object of public attention.”
However, the police soon changed tack, announcing that the motive was in fact destabilization of Ukrainian society and politics. This was despite the fact that no destabilizing effect followed from the murder.
At the start of 2021, yet another version appeared, this time with Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenko at its center. The Brussels-based online newspaper EUObserver published a recording dated April 11, 2012, where individuals identified as the head of the Belarusian KGB, Vadim Zaytsev, and two agents of an elite KGB counterterrorism unit, Alpha Group, discuss a plan to liquidate political opponents, among them Pavlo Sheremet. EUObserver obtained the recording from Igor Makar, the former assistant commander of the combat group ‘Almaz’, an anti-terrorism subdivision of the Belarusian Interior Ministry. After the article’s publication, Makar traveled to Kyiv and testified to police. However, since then, Ukrainian authorities have made no announcement concerning an investigation into the new allegations.
It is also important to know that, in 2016, Pavlo Sheremet had most likely become a target in a conflict between oligarchic alliances fighting to secure their share of the spoils in post-revolutionary Ukraine and to preserve their influence in the political crisis of that year. This may have led to his death, Zaborona editors believe, after reviewing the available materials connected with the case. Parts one, two, three and four of the investigation can be read here.
Should we trust the Interior Ministry (MVS) investigation?
The narrative of Sheremet’s murder has changed repeatedly. On August 3, 2016, an unofficial advisor to the Minister of Internal Affairs of Ukraine, Anton Geraschenko, said that Sheremet had been killed to “undermine the government of Ukraine.” The following day, another advisor, Zoryan Shkiryak, said that “Russian security forces are behind the murder.” In February 2017, police stated their belief that the murder was prompted by Sheremet’s work as a journalist. Also in 2017, police restricted access to information pertaining to the case, even though this is not allowed by law. Then-Interior Minister Arsen Avakov explained the move in 2019, saying, “during the investigation we felt that information was being leaked to our suspects, and that was why we classified the case as much as possible in 2017.”
Additionally, investigators based the indictments on the suspects’ links to certain people who are acquainted with one another. These figures have criminal pasts and knowledge of explosive devices, but there is no direct evidence tying them to the case — a fact acknowledged even by high-ranking MVS officials. Furthermore, this version of events omits any mention of the SBU, which may be implicated in surveillance of Sheremet — and possibly his murder. Nor does the selective approach police have taken to fact-checking witnesses (described here in two prior installments of our investigation) promote confidence.
Is it safe to be a journalist in Ukraine?
The Ukrainian organization “Institute of Mass Information” has identified attacks on journalists as a trend in 2020. In the past year, they catalogued more than 180 cases of infringement of freedom of speech, most of which were accompanied by physical aggression. In 2021, the situation has not improved, and access to information has actually decreased in connection with the coronavirus pandemic.
Editor-in-chief of online newspaper Ukrayinska Pravda, Sevğil Musayeva, told the international organization Committee to Protect Journalists, “We know that if murders go unpunished, more journalists may be killed. That is why it is important now to find the people who murdered Pavlo, as well as those who ordered [the killing].”
About Pavlo Sheremet:
Pavlo Sheremet is a Belarusian and Russian journalist who had worked in Ukraine since 2012. In 1997, he was arrested in Belarus for his reporting from the Belarusian-Lithuanian border. Sheremet spent three months in jail, after which he was deported and then settled in Russia. There, he worked for Channel One until 2008, when his dissatisfaction with editorial policy drove him to leave. In Ukraine, Sheremet hosted a program on Radio Vesti, was published in Ukrayinska Pravda (where he also held a leadership role), and was the founder and chief editor of the opposition media site “Belarusian Partisan”.
Translated by Hallie Sala of Respond Crisis Translation