Judge faces criminal charges over obstruction of Ukrainian journalist’s murder trial
The latest court hearing in the drawn-out trial of men suspected of killing Cherkasy Maidan activist and journalist Vasyl Serhiyenko took an unexpected turn on 16 July when the judge in the case was herself formally informed by prosecutors that she is facing criminal charges. It was a chaotic scene with prosecutors approaching Lyudmila Synytsya as she left the courtroom, and having to inform her that she is under suspicion on the hop as the judge tried to get away from them into her office. The charges directly relate to her behaviour in this trial and specifically actions just over a year ago which probably obstructed the prosecution’s efforts to get one of the defendants to testify against the others which could well have helped to identify and bring charges against those suspected of ordering Serhiyenko’s savage murder in April 2014.
Judge Synytsya has now been charged over her behaviour at a hearing in the Horodyshensky Court with all five defendants present.
The Special Investigations Department had issued a formal order regarding security measures with respect to Horbenko. The investigators were planning to question him in connection with another case where they were trying to establish who had commissioned a crime, and first wanted to get him away from the others and brought to Kyiv. The prosecutors’ order for his transfer had no relation to the defendants’ trial, and there was, in fact, no reason for the judge to even be involved.
The investigators had, however, run up against obstruction from the SIZO or remand prison where Horbenko and three other defendants were held. The SIZO head refused to permit the transfer without the consent of the regional prosecutor and the latter insisted that the transfer needed the consent of the court.
All of this reeked of obstruction, but that was nothing compared to what happened in court. Synytsya began reading out the documents during an open court hearing, thus informing everybody, including the other four defendants that one of their number was being moved away. The documents included what she said was a statement from Horbenko, asking to be transferred as he feared for his life.
All of this was extremely sensitive information which would presumably leave Horbenko’s fellow defendants, and perhaps others present, in no doubt that he could be planning to give testimony that would incriminate them.
The prosecutor present, Vitaly Drahunov, warned Synytsya three times that divulging such information carried criminal liability but she continued regardless.
Unsurprisingly, Horbenko then claimed that he had not written the appeal and that his signature had been forged. Despite the very obvious motive under such circumstances for the defendant to change his testimony, the judge ordered registration of criminal proceedings over supposed falsification of documents by the investigators and, according to the prosecutors, also ordered the SIZO to refuse to hand the defendant over to the investigators.
It was at the very next hearing, on 26 June 2019, that Horbenko was released under house arrest and immediately refused to have any contact with the Special Investigations Department.
58-year-old Serhiyenko lived in Korsun-Shevchenkivsky in the Cherkasy oblast. Although also a Maidan activist, it seems very likely that he was killed because of his work as a journalist. In the months before his murder he was reportedly involved in gathering information about the former governor of the oblast, Serhiy Tulub and Hennady Bobov, who was until the elections in July 2019 an MP. He was investigating, for example, believed illegal deals involving reserve land which Bobov was allegedly using for his own private purposes.
The jounalist was abducted from outside his home on 4 April 2014. The assailants beat him and also inflicted knife wounds during the initial attack, a part of which Serhiyenko’s mother witnessed. She pleaded with the attackers to not hurt her son, but they simply forced him into their car and sped off. His body was found the following day in a forest. He had choked to death on his own blood, following major blows to the head and 19 knife wounds.
Three of the suspected killers - Viktor Horbenko; Volodymyr Voronkov and Valentin Zavrazhin - were caught in connection with another crime in 2015, in which the men are accused of trying to set fire to the equipment of a local farmer who was known to be in competition with Bobov. The car they were driving was found to have traces of Serhiyenko’s blood, and the prosecution believes Serhiyenko was first taken in it to a petrol station near a holiday park, also linked with Bobov, and then transferred to another car.
Two other men were arrested in 2017 - Roman Nedibalyuk and Vadim Melnyk. Melnyk, who had earlier been the head of Bobov’s guards, was reported to have been in hiding since the first arrests. He is accused of organizing the abduction and killing, while Voronkov is charged with killing Serhiyenko. The prosecution has only charged Horbenko; Nedibalyuk and Zavrazhin with involvement in the abduction, although the initial attack on the journalist was savage and could well have been part of the reason for his death.
There seem to have been objective reasons for a first trial, from the beginning of 2016 until May 2017, needing to be abandoned. There are, however, no good reasons why the retrial has been passed from court to court and essentially never beginning. By June 2019, the trial had reached the same stage as at the beginning of 2016, with the prosecutor reading out the indictment. This is doubtless one of the reasons why only one of the defendants – Voronkov – is still in custody, with Melnyk, the other main defendant, suspected of having organized the abduction and killing, having been released under house arrest in January 2020. The hearing on 16 July 2020 was, in fact, only about extending Voronkov’s detention and the house arrest of Horbenko and Nedibalyuk for a further two months (Zavrazhin is on bail).
Ukraine has a very bad track record for bringing to justice those who commission killings and attacks on journalists, civic activists or others who get in their way. This case seems particularly shocking as there is little movement even on seeking convictions of those believed to have carried out the crime.
Yevhenia Zakrevska, the lawyer representing the Serhiyenko family, believes that there is evidence pointing to the involvement of Bobov, who wields a great deal of influence in the area.
It remains to be seen whether this new move in the case brings justice any closer.