Yuliya Kuzmenko’s (center) and her lawyer Vladyslav Dobosh (left) during the court hearing. Photo: radiosvoboda.org
Last week, Ukrainian police made a commotion when they announced the suspects in the resonant case of the murder of journalist Pavlo Sheremet in 2016. Journalists and media associations had demanded Ukraine find the culprits of the car bombing that took Sheremet’s life for over three years. But the evidence for the five people the police is accusing is looking shaky – with at least one appearing to have a solid alibi.
“Yesterday, TV ruined my life,” said Yuliya Kuzmenko, a volunteer and pediatric surgeon suspected of assassinating Belarusian-Ukrainian journalist Pavlo Sheremet, after the court сhose two months in prison as a preventive measure for her. The court ruled the same for another suspect, a musician and Donbas war veteran Andriy Antonenko (Riffmaster). Regarding the third suspect, a nurse of one of the airborne battalions Yana Dugar, the court decided to place her under house arrest for two months. However, all three were convicted on 12 December, during a briefing of Ukraine’s National Police which was attended by President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, as well as Minister of Internal Affairs Arsen Avakov and Prosecutor General Ruslan Riaboshapka. The case was presented as if the executors of the crime were already revealed, although no court hearings had taken place.
During the briefing, the police told the public that the three were part of one group aiming to destabilize the situation in Ukraine. So far, this is the main version of the investigation. As evidence, the police presented parts of phone conversations that were hardly related to the case itself and videos from CCTV cameras they said showed the suspects, though this has been challenged by experts and journalists.
At the briefing, the police also presented a phone conversation between married volunteer soldier couple, Vladyslav and Inna Hryshchenko. Later, it turned out that they had not been informed of the charges being brought against them. The investigators believe they might know more information about the case.
Court ordered arrest of the three suspects
Judge Serhiy Vovk, one of the most scandalous judges Ukraine has to offer, led the court hearings regarding all three suspects. The most well-known scandal with his participation happened in 2012 when the judge convicted then ex-Minister of Internal Affairs Yuriy Lutsenko to four years in prison for an illegal celebration of the day of the police. Criminal proceedings have also been opened against the judge himself. Since 2011, he was removed from his duties for five times, but has always managed to get back to work.
The lawyers defending Kuzmenko and Antonenko in Sheremet’s case filed a motion to have the judge replaced. However, the claims were rejected.
Yana Dugar was the first against whom the court chose a preventive measure. Prosecutors requested a closed session, but the court rejected the request. Her lawyers stated that at the moment when journalist Sheremet was killed, Dugar was located in the military hospital in Pokrovske, which is confirmed by the marks in her military ID.
Also, they pointed out that the CCTV videos allegedly showing Dugar preparing to carry out the murder were made at dates when she was out of the country (11 and 15 July 2016), which is easily proven by marks in her passport.
A number of MPs expressed their readiness to bail her out. Despite this, and Dugar’s apparent solid alibi, the court had ordered her placed under round-the-clock house arrest in her place of residence in Dnipropetrovsk Oblast until 8 February 2020.
Yuliya Kuzmenko was the second to hear her verdict. Prior to it, her lawyer Vladyslav Dobosh announced that more than 10 people were ready to post bail for her, including MPs, military and civilian doctors. Also, the lawyer suggested the court listen to witnesses who he claimed were ready to prove that Kuzmenko did not commit the crime. One of the witnesses is Kuzmenko’s ex-husband. However, the court did not fulfill the claim.
After the hearing, the lawyer also released snapshots from Kuzmenko’s Facebook messenger showing her chatting on 19 July 2016, one day before the murder. This disproves the claim of the investigation that from 19:00 on 19 July Kuzmenko was not active in social media, which was unusual for her. The chatting presented by the lawyer dated 19 July, from 20:37 to 20:50.
Kuzmenko has worked as a pediatric surgeon for 17 years, but during the hearing, the prosecutor erroneously referred to her as unemployed. The court ordered her to nearly two months of pretrial detention, which will come at a cost for her little patients with scheduled operations.
“A terrible thing happened when the main person in this field violated its most important commandment – the presumption of innocence. Then, we didn’t see any evidence, I didn’t receive any search or detention order. Neither my lawyer nor I were present at the court session broadcast on TV. I could not say anything in my defense. Yesterday, TV ruined my life,” Kuzmenko said in court where her measure of restraint was being chosen.
Later, Kuzmenko’s lawyer informed that she is ready to cooperate with the investigation. “When my innocence is established, all those who approved the fraudulent expertise and accusations, who approved the deliberately illegal decisions will answer before the law for my humiliation,” Kuzmenko said.
Andriy Antonenko was the last one to hear his verdict late at night. He is accused of organizing the crime and creating the criminal group.
The CCTV videos were the only evidence allegedly proving his involvement in the case, and Antonenko stressed that the man in the video does not look like him.
“My shoulders are somewhat hunched, my neck bulges slightly, which is totally unlike the person there [on the video]. Plus the ears. I have cauliflower ears as I do martial arts, but there we see a person with undamaged ears.”
The suspect also noted that he has tattoos and the person in the CCTV footage does not. Also, Antonenko said that he never met Yana Dugar, with whom he is being accused of creating the criminal group.
Antonenko’s lawyer and the lawyers of other suspects stated that the materials the prosecutor’s office provided to the court for choosing a preventive measure contain no evidence that the three persons are related to Sheremet’s assassination.
Some inflammatory phrases in the accusation caused outrage and even an online flashmob.
According to the accusation, Antonenko decided to create the group “being carried away with ultranationalist ideas, cultivating the majesty of the Aryan race, the division of society on the principle of nationality, seeking to make his views the subject of public attention.”
Antonenko noted that he was born in a Jewish district and is of Jewish origin, as his grandfather was a Polish Jew.
“Consciously or unconsciously, you offended me personally and my family with your conclusion,” Antonenko said.
First, Antonenko confirmed his readiness to cooperate with the investigation, like Kuzmenko. However, on 17 December his defense released a statement saying that the man refuses to testify, explaining it by a lack of trust in the investigation.
“The top managers of police, Minister of Internal Affairs, the Prosecutor General and the President of Ukraine unanimously called him a criminal in front of the whole country. Taking this into consideration, we assume that there will be some prejudice from the side of the investigation,” the statement says.
Evidence of law enforcement raises questions
‘Who Killed Pavel Sheremet”: an investigation by the media outlet Hromadske
At the briefing, the police showed a video recording of a woman who took a picture of the CCTV camera on the street in Kyiv where Sheremet was killed. Then it showed a man and a woman walking on a street nearby and then a woman allegedly placing an explosive device under Sheremet’s car (the official owner of the car was Olena Prytula, the head of the Ukrayinska Pravda online newspaper and civil wife of the killed journalist). Then, the two met each other again and left the place.
According to the investigation, it was Kuzmenko who “pressed the button” after Sheremet drove away to a safe distance. After the explosion, the suspect allegedly put on other clothes and ran away.
One of the videos shows a print on the man’s back. The police said that they found Antonenko’s trace thanks to it, as the musician often wears clothes with similar prints. The police also presented Kuzmenko’s phone conversations – in which the man tells nothing that could be related to the crime.
The video evidence allegedly proving Kuzmenko’s involvement in the case appear to be shaky as well. During the court session, her lawyer asked to play a video recording of experts assessing if the person on the recording is Kuzmenko. The lawyer’s request was denied, so he just read them aloud. It turned out that the experts doubt that the two are the same.
A year after Sheremet’s assassination, Hromadske journalists created a documentary presenting their own investigation into the case. They collected all the videos from the CCTV cameras where the persons potentially involved in the crime could have been visible.
On 12 December 2019, the police actually presented the same videos but omitted important details that were part of Hromadske’s investigation. At night, when the explosive device was placed under Sheremet’s car, two cars were nearby. People in them were behaving strangely. Later, the journalists identified one of them. It was Vitaliy Ustymenko, an ex-officer of the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU). After the documentary, was released the police stated that they interrogated him.
Also, Hromadske’s film contains evidence that the Security Service had followed Ukrayinska Pravda journalists prior to Sheremet’s murder. However, law enforcement denied this.
Serhiy Leshchenko, a journalist and an ex-MP, also believes that the SBU had a role in Sheremet’s murder.
“One of the directions in which the investigation in Pavlo Sheremet’s case is moving is the connection of the detained to high ranking SBU employees. In particular, videos from four CCTV cameras in the area of the crime disappeared that day. This might be related to SBU activities. More detailed information on the Security Service’s role might be released later,” he wrote.
After the briefing, Slidstvo.info journalists managed to procure and analyze the expert evaluations on which the police based their investigation. According to the journalists, four experts, one of them from outside Ukraine, signed conclusions that contradict each other. In particular, the psychological evaluation said that the people in the videos are identical, the portrait evaluation could not say the same, and the gait evaluation considered the evidence as “conditionally sufficient.”
Another study carried out by the foreign expert places the entire results of the police investigation under question. The expert concluded that all the actions to prepare and carry out the explosion were made by one woman. But the Ukrainian police had arrested two women.
The police later refuted Slidstvo’s publication. According to the police, the British expert Ivan Birch to whom Slidstvo referred first made his conclusion based on videos from a restricted number of CCTV cameras. Then, he assumed that all the women on videos can be the same person. However, another evaluation in which Birch was involved analyzed videos from a larger number of cameras, concluding that the women were different.
Meanwhile, lawyers and civil society continue to analyze the actions of law enforcement during the briefing. For example, lawyer Kostiantyn Rybachkovskyi gave his evaluation to what he heard during the briefing on 12 December. He listed the Constitutional rights and guarantees that the persons speaking at the briefing, including the president, had violated. Among these was the violation of the presumption of innocence, the principle of the inviolability of honor and dignity of a citizen and a person. Also, the lawyer stressed that the names of the suspects cannot be revealed until there is a guilty verdict. No one can be blamed publicly without the court’s proven evidence and competitive process.
On 18 December, Dugar’s lawyer stated that the witnesses who can confirm Dugar being at the frontline on 20 July 2016 are being pressured.