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Lukashenko plotted to kill Sheremet yet Ukraine has charged people with no motive for his murder

05.01.2021
Halya Coynash

Hours after EUobserver and an organization calling itself the Belarusian People’s Tribunal published a highly incriminating taped conversation potentially linking the violent killing of Belarusian dissident and Kyiv-based journalist Pavel Sheremet with the Belarusian KGB, it became clear that Ukraine’s police learned of the tape back in December 2020.  What is not revealed is whether the police were planning to carry out the ‘investigative activities’ they have now announced before the high-profile publications.  This is of immense importance since three Ukrainians are now on trial, two of them deprived of their liberty, on charges of having killed Sheremet, without any clear motive. There is a massive divide between the type of killing seemingly proposed by Belarusian KGB head Vadim Zaitsev, who allegedly had a specially trained unit just for such murderous tasks, and Ukrainian musician and military public relations officer Andriy Antonenko (‘Riffmaster’); paediatric surgeon and civil volunteer Yulia Kuzmenko and military nurse Yana Duhar.   

In his EUobserver report, Andrew Rettman reports that “Belarus president Alexander Lukashenko authorised political murders in Germany”, and also wanted Sheremet, a former Belarusian political prisoner and bitter critic of his regime, killed.  His named source is Igor Makar, now an opposition activist living in hiding in an EU country, but formerly a special forces officer.  We can only guess whether Makar was involved in “certain information” being received by Ukraine’s Foreign Intelligence Service and passed to the National Police in December.   

The intercepted tape is from 11 April 2012, with a voice that appears to be Zaitsev stating that Lukashenko is awaiting “these operations”.  According to Makar, Zaitsev was speaking to members of the Alpha Group’s Seventh Department, a secret unit allegedly “created to target the regime's political enemies”.   Although the forensic expert whom Rettman spoke with said that the sound quality is too poor for proper biometric speaker recognition analysis, he also said there seemed no obvious tampering with the tape. 

The person who certainly sounds like Zaitsev discussed killing three Belarusians living in exile in Germany and also said (as per the EUobserver translation) “We should be working Sheremet, who is a massive pain in the arse”  Sheremet’s killing had to be violent and send a clear message that this was no death by natural causes. “"We'll plant [a bomb] and so on and this fucking rat will be taken down in fucking pieces - legs in one direction, arms in the other direction.”

Pavel Sheremet died at around 8 a.m. on 20 July 2016, when the bomb attached to his car during the night exploded at an intersection in the centre of Kyiv.

Rettman notes that Sheremet’s death echoed “Zaitsev’s macabre words”, going on to state that “four years later, Ukraine has still not caught the people who did it.

Rettman explains that he was referring only to the lack of any convictions, however there are many people in Ukraine who are convinced that the case has not been solved and that Antonenko, Kuzmenko and Duhar are innocent.  Antonenko has been in detention since 12 December 2019.  Kuzmenko was remanded in custody that same day and only released under house arrest on 11 August 2020.  

The taped conversation was from 2012, four years before Sheremet’s killing and cannot as such constitute proof that Lukashenko and his KGB henchmen were involved in the crime.  It does, however, give serious grounds for probing what had always seemed an obvious line of investigation.  Antonenko’s defence team have noted that the crime was committed on the anniversary of Lukashenko’s first inauguration as President in 1994, a date that, according to media reports, he still celebrates.

While the National Police confined themselves to vague statements about investigative measures, police spokesperson Artem Shevchenko claimed that the 2012 tape confirms their version and therefore the involvement of Antonenko; Kuzmenko and Duhar in the crime.  He told the BBC Ukrainian Service that the indictment clearly says that their actions were prompted by other unidentified individuals.

It does, but it also claims that these individuals, “acting from a range of personal motives, decided to cause a high-profile event in society in order to then provoke numerous protests”.   In order to do this, they are supposed to have found a musician, a children’s surgeon and a military nurse to carry out the killing, with the reason why the latter allegedly agreed to do this, still a mystery.

Shevchenko’s words are at the very least worrying in suggesting that the police investigators will have no interest in giving proper consideration to the tape and in examining whether there is evidence of Belarusian involvement.  It is simply absurd to claim that proof of a Belarusian specially trained KGB unit planning the assassinations of Lukashenko’s enemies fits into the motiveless case against the three Ukrainian defendants. Not to mention how the police investigators could have found absolutely nothing to indicate how the three were supposed to have received this task from the Belarusian KGB

There are already multiple grounds for concern about the case, including the flagrant violation of the three suspects’ right to the presumption of innocence; the initial attempt to copy-paste a motive from another trial altogether and, now, the lack of any clear motive; the questionable evidence used to back the charges and the fact that Antonenko and Kuzmenko, who are accused of having planted the bomb seem clearly very different from the two people captured on CCTV footage.

Motive

The National Police statement on 4 January 2021 says that they have received information about “the possible commissioners of Pavel Sheremet’s killing”.  Ukraine has, unfortunately, seen many cases where people have been paid to carry out high-profile killings.  If the Zaitsev tape is authentic, then we would be dealing with an entirely different type of crime, committed by a specially trained Belarusian unit.

During the first three and a half years after Sheremet’s death, it had never seemed in question that he had been targeted either because of his criticism of the regimes of Lukashenko and of Russian President Vladimir Putin, or because of his hard-hitting journalism in Ukraine.  In 2017, the investigators stated that the main version that they were considering was that Sheremet had been killed because of his journalist work. In January 2017, Anton Herashchenko, then an MP with close links to the Interior Minister Arsen Avakov, asserted that the investigators “are 99.9% sure” that Sheremet’s murder had been organized and carried out by a terrorist centre in Russia.

Then on 12 December 2019, and during the court hearing to remand Antonenko in custody the following day, it transpired that the alleged motive was quite different.   Antonenko was claimed to have organized the crime “Seized by ultra-nationalist ideas, cultivating the supremacy of the Arian race, the division of society on the basis of ethnic identity, wanting to make his views the object of public attention and carrying out his actions in order to draw the public’s attention to certain political beliefs… he decided to create an organized group in order to carry out the murder of journalist and radio presenter Sheremet”.

The ‘Arian race’ nonsense was swiftly discarded, possibly because of Antonenko’s outrage in court (he is half-Jewish, and no racist), but probably because the investigators were caught having copy-pasted this supposed motive from an indictment against another person altogether, drawn up before Sheremet’s murder.

Part of the ‘motive’ has, however, remained, namely the effective removal of Sheremet as the target of the assassination.  In the prosecution’s version, the killing of essentially any prominent figure would do. in order to destabilize the situation in the country and “to provoke numerous acts of protest”. 

From 12 December 2019 until May 2020, it was claimed that Antonenko had organized the killing, getting Kuzmenko and Duhar to help carry it out.  This changed in May 2020, with all three defendants now accused of involvement in the  killing, which is supposed to have been organized by other, unidentified, individuals.  Why any of them should have done this remains largely unclear.  Sheremet’s killing did not lead to numerous acts of protest or destabilize the situation in the country and it is not clear why this would have been the expected result.

Tried by press briefing

In June 2020, Antonenko’s lawyers filed an application with the European Court of Human Rights, alleging numerous violations of the right to liberty and security (Article 5 of the European Convention on Human Rights) and the right to a fair trial (Article 6).  One of the aspects of the right to a fair trial is the presumption of innocence and strong concerns were expressed from the outset about the manner in which the three Ukrainians’ arrests were made public on 12 December 2019 during a press briefing attended by President Volodymyr Zelensky; Interior Minister Arsen Avakov; Prosecutor General Ruslan Riaboshapka; the new Head of Police Ihor Klymenko and his deputy, Yevhen Koval.

Avakov announced that all of the suspects had been arrested, although Kuzmenko was in the operating theatre at the time. She later told the court that the most upsetting thing for her was that she had been operating during the press briefing that “made her into a killer” and ended her career as a paediatric surgeon.

Words like ‘suspect’, rather than ‘killer’ were used, however the case was essentially presented as solved.  Koval, for example, presented the alleged motive of “destabilization of the political situation in the state through the murder of a well-known individual” as proven, claiming that other motives had been totally excluded.

Photos of the above-mentioned suspects were shown throughout the briefing, together with the photos of two other people, also military volunteers: Inna and Vladyslav Hryshchenko.  The latter were already under arrest on different charges, however during his presentation, Koval described the five as “a group” and there was a clear suggestion that all would face charges over Sheremet’s murder.  The Hryshchenkos have not been charged over it, although Vladyslav Hryshchenko has said that the investigator offered to free his wife if he “took the Sheremet murder upon himself”. 

The fact that the Hryshchenkos are not considered to have been involved is unnerving as it was made clear during the briefing that an apparent similarity between the explosive devices used to kill Sheremet and a crime that Vladyslav Hryshchenko is accused of that led to Antonenko first being linked with the Sheremet case. 

At one point, Koval stated that all five of the people named were “known to us over past crimes”.  There is nothing to suggest that this was true of Antonenko, Kuzmenko and Duhar, and claims that Antonenko was involved in bringing down an electricity pylon in the Kherson oblast in November 2015 (linked with attempts to stop electricity supplies going to Russian-occupied Crimea) have been totally refuted. 

During the press briefing, Avakov, the Head of Police and his Deputy all claimed that there was a huge amount of evidence, of which they had purportedly only revealed a small part.  There is nothing to suggest that this was the case.  The statements made by Zelensky and Riaboshapka both very clearly suggested that the crime had been solved and culprits caught.  

On 13 December, Avakov and the Director of the Kyiv Scientific Institute of Forensic Analyses both took part (without any representative of those accused) in the Savik Shuster Freedom of Speech talk show.   In addition to repeating information from the press briefing, Avakov also asserted that Antonenko had made a phone call before the search asking his brother-in-law to take an anti-personnel mine from his flat.  Oleksiy Nikiforov, a representative of the Special Operations Forces and  Antonenko’s immediate commander, has said that the mine had been deactivated, with the explosives removed, in order to use it for photo shots (linked with Antonenko’s work as a military PR officer which were posted on social media. This was confirmed by the Kyiv Institute of Forensic Analyses which said that, in the form it had been presented to them, the mine could not be considered either ammunition or an explosive.

A particularly shocking part of this media event, attended by the Interior Minister, was that the studio audience was asked to vote on whether or not they thought the suspicions were well founded.

As reported, two months after Riaboshapka very publicly suggested that the killers had been identified, he stated in an Interfax interview that more evidence needed to be gathered before the case was passed to the court.  

In comments about the case during his 20 May 2020 press conference, President Zelensky made it clear that it was Interior Minister Avakov “who started this” and that if the case did not hold up in court,  Avakov would be held responsible, with this likely leading to “staffing changes”.

It was immediately after Zelensky’s comments that the charges were changed, with Antonenko now only accused of having carried out the killing by prior conspiracy, not of having organized it.  Kuzmenko was accused of having planted the explosive device, but not, as previously, with detonating it.   The three suspects were no longer considered ‘a group’ (and the Hryshchenkos were not charged at all).

Given the Zaitsev tape, it is worth noting the possible hint in the indictment that the ‘unidentified persons’ who organized and commissioned the crime could be a person linked with the law enforcement bodies. In 2017, OCCRP (the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project) and Slidstvo.info uncovered a huge amount of information that the investigators had either not found or not revealed.  This included a former or current employee of the Ukrainian Security Service [SBU[, Ihor Ustimenko, who was at very least a witness of critical importance since he was clearly carrying out some kind of surveillance during the night before the killing near Sheremet’s home.

The trial has now commenced of the Antonenko, Kuzmenko and Duhar.  At present there is little to suggest that the enforcement bodies have the considerable evidence claimed during the December 2019 press briefing.  On that occasion, a British expert, gait expert Ivan Birch, was mentioned as having made one of the supposedly incriminating expert assessments.  In fact, forensic gait analysis is not very widely practised, and the ‘Primer for Courts’ produced by the Royal Society of Edinburgh makes it quite clear that gait analysis from two videos cannot be based solely on those videos, but must be backed by other independent evidence of the person’s characteristic gait.  In this case, Birch appears to have been shown two videos and asked to say whether it could be the same person.  Kuzmenko’s lawyer, Taras Bespaly has also asserted that when he tried to get an independent assessment, repeating the so-called ‘portrait-psychological assessment’, also presented as evidence, he was told that such an assessment on the basis of a video is simply impossible. 

Most, if not all, of these videos can be viewed on the Internet.  Their quality and the fact that the perpetrators were probably aware of the cameras, and also trying not to attract attention, make it hard to understand how a comparison with the defendants’ gait could be in any way conclusive.  They also, however, highlight other serious concerns.  Antonenko is significantly taller than the height of the male perpetrator as per two assessments based on video footage of the killers.  He is also a head or more taller than Kuzmenko, which seems far greater than the difference in height between the two perpetrators in the videos. His beard at the time was also quite different from that of the male on the video.

 

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