Four years ago, on 20 July, a car exploded in Kyiv with Ukrainian/Belarusian journalist Pavlo Sheremet. He died almost exactly one minute after the explosion. Since then it has been unclear who ordered his murder and who carried it out. Over the last four years, law enforcement agencies claimed to have found the suspected perpetrators; however, the evidence against these suspects is largely unconvincing. On the anniversary of the murder of our colleague, Zaborona recounts everything it knows about the case. Unfortunately, this does not amount to a lot of information.
Pavlo Sheremet was killed in Kyiv on 20 July, 2016. The car in which the journalist was commuting exploded. Around a minute after the explosion, Sheremet died. The explosive device was attached to the undercarriage of the vehicle and was detonated by the perpetrators of the murder from a distance. The car itself belonged to Sheremet’s wife, chief editor of the popular online news site “Ukrayinska Pravda”, Olena Prytula. Because of this, there was a version that it was an attempt for her life, but the police didn’t confirm the theory. The incumbent president, Petro Poroshenko, provided Prytula with security and claimed that finding Sheremet’s murderers was “a question of honor”, whilst promising to do everything to investigate the murder as quickly as possible.
Pavlo Sheremet was a Belarusian and Russian journalist who worked in Ukraine from 2012. In 1997, he was arrested in Belarus for reporting from the Belarusian/Lithuanian border, and spent three months in jail. Later he was deported and decided to relocate to Russia, where he worked at “Perviy Kanal”. In 2008 he left due to a disagreement with the channel’s editorial policy. In Ukraine, Sheremet led a program at “Radio Vesti”, was a manager and writer at “Ukrayinska Pravda”, and was also chief editor for the website “The Belarusian Partisan”, a Belarusian opposition publication founded by Sheremet himself.
Sheremet was blown up by a remote-controlled explosive device. The police opened a criminal case under the article “premeditated murder, committed by a method dangerous to the lives of many persons”. After two days, on 22 July, the police presented a surveillance camera video showing a woman laying a bomb underneath his car. Her partner, a man, prepared the explosive before it was planted. Screenshots from the video reveal the man’s face, although his features are very unclear. According to the police, there are no other recordings or videos of the event.
The accounts of Sheremet’s murder have changed constantly. On 3 August, 2016, non-staff advisor to the Minister of Internal Affairs of Ukraine, Anton Gerashchenko, stated that Sheremet was murdered with the goal of “undermining the Ukrainian state system”. The day after, another advisor, Zoryan Shkiryak, claimed that “the Russian secrect services are behind the murder”. In February 2017, the police came forward with its chosen version of events: murder due to the professional activity of the journalist. That same year, all information regarding the police investigation was made secret, despite the fact that this contradicts Ukrainian law.
Journalists investigated the case alongside the police. The night before the murder, Sheremet met with representatives of the “Azov” volunteer regiment to speak about an upcoming nationalist-led protest. Amongst these representatives was the then Member of Parliament, Andriy Biletskiy, as well as Serhiy Korotkykh (Botsman), a Belarusian nationalist who moved to Ukraine in 2014 and fought in Donbass alongside “Azov”. Previously, Botsman was one of the founders of the radical neo-nazi organization “The National-Socialist Society”, whose members were accused of racially-motivated murder.
In 2015, Botsman, according to his own declaration, was head of the police department for the protection of “strategic objects”. However, the Minister of Internal Affairs Arsen Avakov in response to questioning from Zaborona stated that Botsman never worked for the Ministry.
Half-an-hour into the meeting with the representatives from “Azov”, a white Mercedes and a grey Škoda drove up and parked one hundred meters away from Sheremet’s building. The drivers spoke a few words to each other and approached the journalist’s building. As soon as the woman had placed the explosive underneath Sheremet’s car, both cars quickly left the scene. Journalists uncovered that the owner of the Škoda was a female resident of Kyiv; her acquaintance, Ihor Ustymenko, had asked her to register the car officially as her own. Ustymenko admitted that he had been in Sheremet’s building, but for different reasons. In 2014, he worked for the Ukrainian Security Service, although he has not commented on this information. A few weeks before the murder, Sheremet and Prytula announced that they were being followed.
In December, 2019, the police detained several suspects. Andriy Antonenko, Donbass war veteran and rock-musician with the title of “Riffmaster”, was accused of organizing the murder, while Yulia Kuzmenko, doctor and volunteer, was accused of carrying it out. Military nurse Yana Duhar was also thought by the investigation to be another member of the “organized group”. The central motive of the murder was changed again: now, according to the investigation, the suspects sought to destabilize the situation in Ukraine. Antonenko and Kuzmenko deny the accusations against them. Andriy Antonenko claims that his appearance differs from that of the man in the video, while Yulia Kuzmenko claims that on the day of the murder she was at home.
There are a lot of questions surrounding the police’s version of events. First and foremost, regarding the suspects’ motive: the murder of Sheremet has not influenced on the stability of Ukraine in any way. Secondly, the appearance of the man in the video differs significantly from Antonenko. Thirdly, Yulia Kuzmenko, a successful doctor, would not reasonably be seduced by any financial motives. President Volodymyr Zelensky said that if the police had made a mistake in its accusation of the suspects then it would, at the very least, “apologize”. He also called the case “the personal responsibility” of the Minister of Internal Affairs, Arsen Avakov.
The Ukrainian media “Babel” studied the case material and found even more inconsistencies. When the case was first opened, there were initially six suspects: in addition to Antonenko, Kuzmenko, and Duhar there was also a member of “Right Sector”, soldier of the 95th brigade Vlad Hryshchenko, and his wife Inna. The accusation of the last two suspects was not publicly announced. The couple was on trial for the assassination attempt of a businessman in Kosovo. According to the police, the explosive device that was placed under Sheremet’s car and the device that was intended for use in Kosovo were identical and differed only by method of detonation. Lawyers, however, claimed that the devices were different and were similar only in their method of attachment.
Hryshchenko and his wife were connected to Yulia Kuzmenko through their mutual friend Ivan Vakulenko. The investigation claims that following a summons to questioning, Vakulenko committed suicide in his apartment. The founder of the National Police, Evhen Koval, said that Vakulenko’s summons “affected the mood and psychological state of the whole group”, and that others also “expressed a desire to commit suicide”. In a recording of a conversation between Kuzmenko and her husband Petro Kiyan that was used as evidence, Kiyan says that he says that he wants to shoot himself. However, in the full version of the dialogue it becomes clear that the conversation had no relation to Sheremet’s death; instead, Kiyan was experiencing financial difficulties. It is true, as the investigation claims, that he drove to a forest, but this was with his wife and not on his own. Furthermore, he did not carry out any suicide attempts.
The investigation asserted that before the murder of Sheremet the suspects were discussing scenarios that would “destabilize the situation in Ukraine”. In a press briefing, journalists were shown a piece of this dialogue in which the suspects discuss how many “Grad” rocket launchers would be needed to blow up Kyiv. However, upon further inspection it can be concluded that this is merely a piece of emotionally-charged dialogue between a group of friends who heavily criticised the government. Moreover, the examination of these recordings did not find any suspicious statements that could be interpreted literally as calls to overthrow the incumbent regime and to seize power.
The pre-trial inquiry of the case has now reached its end. Antonenko and Kuzmenko are in custody and Duhar is under a nightly house arrest. The investigation has changed its accusation: now it accuses “unidentified persons” of organization of the murder, while Antonenko has been moved into the category of perpetrator. Journalists from “Slidstvo.info” reportedthat the investigation received “an order from above” to finish the case as quickly as possible.
Translated by Johnny Skilling
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