For over three years, the probe into the assassination of Belarusian journalist Pavlo Sheremet could not find the culprits of the resonant crime in the summer of 2016. In these three years, journalist organizations inside and outside Ukraine wrote appeals, accusing the investigators of inaction; the Hromadske TV channel even made their own investigation.
On 12 December 2019, Ukrainian law enforcers finally named five suspects in the assassination, raising more questions than answers – surprisingly, the suspects included well-known military volunteers: a nurse of one of the airborne battalions, a doctor and a volunteer helping the military, a musician and veteran of the war, and a couple of volunteer soldiers. Considering the high public interest in the case, the police held a briefing, which was attended by President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.
The news about journalist Pavlo Sheremet’s murder shook Ukraine on 20 July 2016. The incident happened in the center of Kyiv. The explosive device detonated in the car belonging to Olena Prytula, the head of the Ukrainska Pravda online newspaper and civil wife of the killed journalist.
The Belarusian-born journalist started working in Ukraine since 2012. He collaborated with Channel 24, Tvi, Radio Vesti and Ukrainska Pravda. At the last one he had his own blog. While his primary topic corruption in Ukraine, he also paid attention to Russian propaganda and interviewed important persons from different fields, among them American historian Timothy Snyder on Brexit, Nobel Prize laureate Svetlana Alekseevich, and Head of Ukrainian Police Khatiya Dekanoidze.
“Who killed Sheremet and why?” was the question left unanswered by the previous government of Petro Poroshenko and remained among the top-questions for civil society.
On 12 December 2019, Minister of Internal Affairs Arsen Avakov stated that the National Police had detained and with the agreement of the Prosecutor General’s Office announced a suspicion to persons involved in Pavlo Sheremet’s assassination.
Simultaneously, well-respected military volunteers informed about their detention. Andriy Antonenko, a Donbas war veteran and a musician who performed in his own band Riffmaster wrote a Facebook post asking for help as law enforcers came with searches to his home, suspecting him in the Sheremet murder. Lawyer Vladyslav Dobosh wrote about the detention of Yulia Kuzmenko, a volunteer and pediatric surgeon.
During the press briefing, the investigation named three more suspects – a nurse of one of the airborne battalions Yana Dugar, and a married couple of volunteer soldiers, Vladyslav and Inna Hryshchenko.
A number of commentators immediately accused law enforcers of discrediting the Ukrainian Army and volunteers soldiers in particular, while the investigation prepared materials backing its version of the assassination.
Investigators say assassination’s motive was to destabilize the situation in Ukraine
Yevhen Koval, deputy Head of the National Police, stated that 3700 interrogations and 47 expertises had been conducted in the Sheremet case, 800 documents, including mobile communications, were received, and recordings from more than 200 video cameras were analyzed.
The investigation had four main versions of the motives for the assassination:
- a mistake – as the killers might have wanted to kill Olena Prytula who owned the detonated car;
- personal issues;
- professional activities;
- destabilization of the situation in the country.
So far, the investigation narrowed the list of main versions to one – destabilization of Ukraine.
During the briefing, law enforcers presented fragments of mobile conversations and recordings from CCTVs which, according to the investigation, form a picture of the accused group’s complicity in the crime. In particular, Antonenko and Kuzmenko are suspected of placing explosive devices under the journalist’s car.
The Hryshchenkos, which are allegedly involved in the assassination, appeared in another criminal case about two months earlier. They were accused of a failed attempt at assassinating a criminal authority in western Ukraine. That time, the device did not detonate. Inna Hryshchenko’s mobile conversations were said to show the alleged involvement of one more person, Ivan Vakulenko, in the case. However, the man allegedly committed suicide one day after receiving the suspicion in the Sheremet case. The mobile conversations showed Inna Hryshenko being disturbed when Vakulenko disappeared. Later, after the news about the death came up, she told her husband that she thinks it’s even better for them. During the presentation, Yevhen Koval stressed that Hryshenko and her interlocutors were not surprised about their friend’s alleged involvement in the Sheremet case.
The investigators cobbled together the so-called Sheremet’s group after observing people attending the court hearings of the Hryshchenkos.
Koval said that after the first suspicion regarding Sheremet’s case, the group’s representatives got noticeably nervous and viewed it as a threat.
The investigation announced that the materials related to the case being published on the site of the Ministry.
Deal suspected between Zelenskyy and Avakov as motives of suspects questioned
President Zelenskyy expressed his confidence that those who ordered the assassination will be revealed after the suspects. This made journalists wonder whether there is an agreement between Zelenskyy and Minister Avakov, where the investigation of the resonant case could be one of the conditions for the controversial and unpopular minister keeping his position. When the new president was forming the government, civic activists demanded the resignation of Avakov, who was accused of corruption and sabotaging the police reform, to no avail. Both Avakov and Zelenskyy rejected the existence of any kind of agreement between them.
A journalist at the briefing questioned whether the law enforcement defined the right motives of the crime, saying that destabilizing the situation in Ukraine by killing one person is an unlikely task. According to the law enforcers, Sheremet was famous enough for this goal. However, in hindsight, the assassination, however frustrating it was, did not really destabilize Ukraine.
The news about the detentions of the volunteers received immediate negative reactions.
“The author of the anthem of the Special Operations Forces, a famous musician, and a soldier is being framed. I’ve managed to talk to him, it’s true that he is shocked without exaggeration. I ask patriotic to get engaged! This seems to be targeted repression against defenders of Ukraine,” Volodymyr Ariev, an MP from European Solidarity, wrote in Facebook.
Oleksiy Petrov, a veteran and blogger, described Kuzmenko as a volunteer and doctor with high civic activity, attending rallies dedicated to significant social issues and a Euromaidan participant.
“She did not hide, always smiled. A person who committed a crime does not behave like this. I think a total destruction of the image of the Ukrainian army is taking place.”
Yevhen Krapyvin, a specialist of the Expert Center for Human Rights, presented an unemotional analysis of what is wrong with the detentions. He believes that the investigation’s version and the presented evidence are good enough reasons for issuing suspicions and the detention of the suspects, but that the president, minister, and Prosecutor General violated the presumption of innocence while using such descriptors as “guilty.” The expert added that the involvement of the president is redundant and appears to be an encroachment on the independence of the judiciary.
“For the unbiased viewer, it might seem that ‘The president gave an order to investigate – the guilty are found.'”
Krapivin also has questions about the detention procedure itself.
“You and I have witnessed the violation of the secrecy of the pre-trial investigation, in particular, disclosing the material of the inquisitorial actions. I hope that all persons who spoke during the briefing had permission to do so from the procedural supervisor in this proceeding. If not, this is a problem.”
The expert concluded that the content of the proceedings is OK, however, the communication is not.
Sheremet’s newspaper, Ukrainska Pravda, treats investigation’s version “with caution”
Sevgil Musaieva, editor in chief of the Ukrainska Pravda online newspaper where Sheremet worked, published the following statement.
“We welcome the fact that the investigation is ongoing and the case has not been forgotten. To be honest, the voiced version of the investigation shocked us. At present, we treat the outlined information with caution.”
The statement also lists questions to which the editorial staff did not hear answers:
- Who could have ordered the assassination? The version that the crime could have been prepared independently by a group of volunteers for destabilizing the situation in Ukraine raises many questions.
- The motives of those who ordered and executed the assassination as voiced by the investigation are questionable: the aim of destabilization in Ukraine was not reached.
- Who was interested in destabilizing the situation in the country at that time? Why did volunteers who supported the army in hard times need to destabilize the country? Does the investigation assume that the group of volunteers could have acted in Russia’s interests?
The media is going to analyze the voiced facts carefully and calls on people who have any information about the suspects to share it with the journalists.