The suspects in Sheremet’s case, from left to the right: Yana Duhar, Yuliya Kuzmenko, and Andriy Antonenko. Collage: RFE/RL
Almost half a year has passed since Ukrainian legal institutions named three army volunteers as suspects in assassinating Belarus-Ukrainian journalist Pavlo Sheremet. Musician Andriy Antonenko, doctor Yuliya Kuzmenko, and airborne battalion nurse Yana Duhar were detained on the day of the press conference where they were announced guilty, in violation of the presumption of innocence. Their defenders also were not invited to the press conference. However, present were President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, Minister of Internal Affairs Arsen Avakov, and former Prosecutor General Ruslan Riaboshapka. As a result, for the larger audience, the perception was clearly that the investigation was completed.
Almost six months later, the pre-trial investigation is completed with no convincing evidence of guilt. It apparently made the prosecutors of the case change the suspicions. In the meantime, Antonenko and Kuzmenko remain behind bars. For Duhar, the court agreed to release her on bail and upon the condition of wearing a GPS-tracking ankle monitor instead of the previous preventive measures of house arrest.
Promises to solve a resonant murder case
Sheremet was assassinated on 20 July 2016 in central Kyiv. The car he was in blew up when an explosive device was detonated remotely. The car belonged to his common law spouse Olena Prytula, editor-in-chief of the online newspaper Ukrayinska Pravda.
Petro Poroshenko, during his tenure as president, stated many times that he was willing to involve foreign investigators in the case. Former Prosecutor General Yuriy Lutsenko had announced significant progress in the investigation. But no progress has been visible.
At the same time, journalists of Slidstvo.info found indications of involvement of the Ukrainian Security Service (SBU) in the murder. This detail has been overshadowed even until now. Coming to power Zelenskyy’s government put a so-called “turbo mode” in place and promised quick results. Sheremet’s case was also included in the list of priorities.
Completing the Sheremet investigation was considered a test for then-new Prosecutor General Riaboshapka and for the Minister of Internal Affairs Avakov (who has held his position from 2014 to the present).
The presented completion of the investigation severely lacked evidence
Announcing the end of the investigation was bold and controversial. It occured at a police press conference which was held publicly on 12 December 2019. The police stated that Kuzmenko, Antonenko, and Duhar were part of a group aiming to destabilize the social and political situation in Ukraine. As evidence, the police presented segments of phone conversations that bore little relation to the case, as well as CCTV footage they claimed implicated the suspects. This dubious evidence has been challenged by experts and journalists.
The presence of President Zelenskyy, Prosecutor General Riaboshapka, and Minister of Internal Affairs Avakov at the press conference attached credibility to the investigation – especially for TV viewers, since TV is a significant factor in creating public opinion in Ukraine.
Antonenko and Kuzmenko were jailed, while Duhar was put under house arrest.
Later, inconsistencies between the evidence and the alleged relation of the three volunteers to the murder became more apparent.
Within a month following the press conference, even Riaboshapka had to admit there was a lack of evidence for the case to proceed to court. Neither Riaboshapka’s change in outlook (Ed. Note: He, himself, was dismissed soon thereafter) nor numerous protests demanding to release the three accused – because of the dearth of evidence – had an impact, and the three remained in detention.
Almost six months after the police press conference, Zelenskyy held his own press conference (20 May) to mark the one-year anniversary of his presidency. He was asked about the Sheremet matter and whether he felt political responsibility for any influence he may have had on the outcome. The president was vague in his statements and ambivalent regarding his influence.
On the one hand, he said that if the investigation was faulty he was ready to make “serious staff conclusions.” On the other hand, his statements revealed that he did not understand – or was willfully ignorant of – the significance of his presence at the December 2019 police press conference.
Seeming perturbed by the question regarding his possible influence, Zelenskyy retorted:
“I was told – the probable killers were found, and I was dragged into it. That’s right, no big deal. I’m not afraid of anything. I’m really curious – so they found the probable killers. I came. They showed me tthe materials, just as with you. I looked at them. But these are the findings [of the investigation]. And the decision is the court’s to make. Let the court decide. Or else, you’re creative! … Make me responsible for the process. Go ahead! I’m ready.”
Immediately after the press conference, the Office of the Prosecutor General replaced the entire group of prosecutors in the case.
Initial version laid off for lack of evidence
The day after the president’s press conference, the newly-appointed group of prosecutors altered the charges as well as the alleged motives of the three accused. Kuzmenko and Antonenko’s lawyers announced that the two were now being considered assassins, and Duhar as an accomplice. Previously, Antonenko was held as an organizer.
Moreover, the police had initially stated that the motive of the three was destabilizing the social and political situation in Ukraine. The case documentation contained sensational allegations that the three were fascinated by “ultranationalist ideas, cultivating the greatness of the Aryan race,” and claimed that by committing the execution they wanted to draw attention to their views – a supposition that appears to hold little, if any, water. Under the new prosecutors, and after much online mockery, the phrases “ultranationalist ideas” and “the greatness of the Aryan race” disappeared from the alleged motives.
The investigation is now using “unidentified persons” for those who ordered the assassination. The motives of these “unidentified organizers,” and those who ordered the killing, have been designated as personal. Allegedly, those who ordered the assassination decided to create “an extremely resonant event with the aim of provoking further numerous protests.” These ideas were supposedly shared by Antonenko, Kuzmenko, and Duhar. Money or any other gains are not mentioned.
According to the defense, these steps were taken by the new prosecutors because of the lack of evidence supporting the initial version.
Prosecutors accused of doctoring proof in new version
The current version of events, according to police, lays out a different course of events. First, the unidentified persons who killed Sheremet had decided to find accessories to the crime among army volunteers. Criteria for these accessories were the “propensity of individuals for violent traits to commit violent actions” and “low moral and psychological qualities.” Allegedly, Antonenko, Kuzmenko, and Duhar agreed to the action.
Next, Duhar conducted reconnaissance for the planning of the assassination. Later, the “unidentified persons” produced an explosive device and provided it to Antonenko and Kuzmenko, who then planted it in the car.
On the morning of 20 July 2016, an unidentified woman in a wig and sunglasses arrived in the vicinity. She entered an abandoned building to change her clothing, then returned to watch Sheremet’s house until he left and got into the car. She then returned to the abandoned building and detonated, remotely, the explosive device.
The police examination describes this phase of the killing clearly, while all the other phases, as well as the motives of the three suspects, are confused and diffuse.
The suspects’ lawyers found numerous inconsistencies in this police version. Antonenko’s defense team demonstrated that their client is taller than the killer (caught on CCTV). Duhar’s defense insisted she has an alibi confirmed by documents and witnesses, and that the examination on which the suspicion is based is incomplete and biased. Kuzmenko’s defense team also criticized the examination, pointing out that at the time of Sheremet’s murder, Kuzmenko and Antonenko had only been in contact a few times, and Duhar had not met either of them at all.
On 25 May, Kyiv’s Pechersk District Court granted the prosecution’s motions and changed the “preventive measure” for Duhar from house arrest to a bail of UAH 168,000 ($6,232) and wearing a GPS-tracking ankle monitor. Duhar and her lawyers appealed to the public to help collect the bail money. Within three hours, the funds were raised from about 500 individual donors.
After the new official version was presented, journalists of Slidstvo.Info accused police of manipulating facts to make the law enforcement version look more convincing – particularly, of falsely claiming that the man and woman traveled a shorter route than in reality. Slidstvo.Info has been conducting their own investigation on the case based on CCTV camera footage.