Vital questions remain unanswered after Donbas volunteers arrested for murder of journalist Pavel Sheremet
The news on 12 December of five arrests over the 2016 killing in Kyiv of Belarusian journalist and former prisoner of conscience, Pavel Sheremet came out of the blue for most Ukrainians. The fact that all three women and two men have been volunteers in the Donbas war zone caused consternation, as well, in some cases, as accusations of a ‘set-up’. Whether the evidence proves sufficient remains to be seen, however it is already clear that crucial questions remain unanswered, as Ukrainska Pravda, with whom Sheremet was connected, wrote in a moving statement on Thursday evening.
In fact, Ukrainska Pravda had pointed to a possible connection with the Sheremet case after the arrest of the first two people – Inna and Vladyslav Hryshchenko – in November 2019. Both of them are former volunteer fighters from the nationalist ‘Right Sector’. Their alleged role remains unclear, however the police report speaks of their DNA having been found on an explosive device (although not necessarily the one under Sheremet’s car).
On 12 December, three other suspects were detained: a well-known musician and Donbas veteran, Andriy Antonenko (‘Rifmaster’); Yulia Kuzmenko, a military volunteer and paediatric surgeon, and Yana Duhar, a military nurse. It is alleged that Kuzmenko planted the bomb under Sheremet’s car, with Antonenko next to her. Duhar is supposed to have used her mobile to photograph the location of CCTV cameras around the crime scene shortly before the bomb blast that killed Sheremet.
During the press briefing, attended by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, the Deputy Head of Police, Yevhen Koval stated that the investigators had considered four possible motives, but considered the main one at present to be the destabilization of the socio-political situation in the country via the murder of a well-known figure.
Although it had seemed possible that the intended victim was Olena Prytula, the (former) Chief Editor of Ukrainska Pravda and Sheremet’s partner, nobody ever took the second possible version named (‘domestic or inter-personal conflict’) seriously. Most assumed (and possibly still assume) that this was a crime linked with Sheremet’s hard-hitting journalism.
The alleged motive is the first unanswered question for Sheremet’s colleagues at Ukrainska Pravda. While welcoming the fact that the investigation had not been forgotten, and was continuing, they admitted that the investigators’ version had shocked them, and said that they were viewing with caution the information presented. They list three key questions which, they say, went unanswered at the press briefing.
“1. Who could have commissioned this murder? The suggestion that such a crime could have been independently organized by a group of volunteers for the sake of destabilising the situation arouses many questions.
2. The motives of those who ordered and who carried out the crime remain unclear to us. The objectives mentioned during the briefing – of destabilizing the situation in Ukraine – was not achieved.
3. Who had an interest in destabilizing the situation in the country at that time? Why would volunteers who had supported the army during difficult times want to destabilize the situation within the country? In such a case, are the investigators assuming that the group of volunteers could act in Russia’s interests?”
Although many would agree that all of the above questions, including motive, remain unanswered, the information presented by the police about the suspects did point to several of them having purchased a fairly unusual amount of real estate and cars. In commenting on the findings after the press briefing, Zelensky clearly assumed that this had been a crime that was commissioned, which would also normally be for money. Of the suspects, one – Vladyslav Hryshchenko – was also reported to have six previous convictions, for robbery, as well as for causing bodily injury, and had spent many years in prison.
Ukraine’s enforcement bodies have a long history of organizing high-profile public briefings, most often with scant concern for the presumption of innocence. While the presence of the Interior Minister, Arsen Avakov and President Zelensky was very much in keeping with that tradition, Avakov was undoubtedly right in pointing to the public significance of the crime. It has been widely feared that Sheremet’s murder would be yet another unsolved crime against journalists or activists. It is not clear as yet that those fears have been allayed.
While the formidable list of removals of documents; interrogations; expert analyses, etc. does not always coincide with actual progress, a great deal of attention, had been focused on CCTV footage and analyses, not only that directly linked with the planting of the bomb.
The investigators had also considered other crimes, involving similar explosive devices. Some of the evidence cited does seem rather circumstantial. They came upon Antonenko, for example, among the circle of acquaintances of a person believed to have been responsible for blowing up power lines in the Kherson oblast in the autumn of 2015. Antonenko in turn proved to live in the centre of Kyiv, near the scene of the crime. So do many other people.
Another attempted crime in Kosiv in 2018 used an identical explosive device to that which killed Sheremet, with evidence about that crime seeming to link the Hryshchenko couple and a person called Ivan Vakulenko.
Vakulenko is reported to have informed Hryshchenko after receiving a summons over the Sheremet case, and is supposed to have committed suicide the following day. Vakulenko’s friends have said that they do not believe he killed himself. It is also not clear why he received a summons over Sheremet’s murder.
All of the suspects had their phones tapped, with this allegedly providing evidence against them. Koval asserts that “the group’s mood and psychological state changed after the issuing of one summons over the Sheremet case”
The specific example of apparently incriminating conversations would link the Hryshchenkos with Vakulenko, although not necessarily the others and, seemingly, not with the killing of Sheremet.
One other very odd part of this story is that Vladyslav Hryshchenko is supposed to have made himself known to the police a week before Sheremet was killed. He is supposed to have been approached to carry out the murder of a farmer in the Dnipropetrovsk oblast, but to have instead informed and cooperated with the police in catching those who commissioned the crime. This does seem a very strange thing to have done if he were planning another analogous crime. Surely the Brownie points you might gain for having reported a planned crime to the police would be countered, and not very favourably, by the fact that somebody had thought you the right person to approach to commit such a crime?
The police also assert that they received an expert assessment of video footage showing the two individuals caught on camera near Sheremet’s car in the night before his murder, and video footage of the suspects. The forensic experts supposedly concluded that the people in these videos were identical, with that allegedly backed by a British expert on how people walk called Ivan Birch. It is not clear whether the same experts were given several other videos, not including the suspects, as would certainly happen in any identification parade.
Koval also mentioned the fact that the mobiles of both Antonenko and Kuzmenko had been switched off from the evening of 19 July after the morning of 20 July 2016, with the investigators saying that this was not usual for the two. The Hryshchenko phones had not been turned off but had been lying in the Dnipropetrovsk oblast without any activity for around 24 hours until about three hours after Sheremet’s murder. “During that period, it was possible to have arrived in Kyiv, done what was needed, and to have returned to Dnipropetrovsk”, Koval said. As mentioned, it is not quite clear what they are alleged to have done, however Hryshchenko is mentioned as being an explosives expert. There are some other points which seem rather unconvincing, such as the statement that Antonenko often wears clothes with identical patterns to those seen on the person planting the explosives under Sheremet’s car.
Pavel Sheremet’s Ukrainska Pravda colleagues and other media people have reacted with caution to the news on 12 December. Others have reacted with anger. MP from the European Solidarity party, Volodymyr Ariev said that charges were being stitched up against a well-known musician and military man, who wrote the hymn of the Special Operations Forces. He asserts that this “seems like deliberate repression against defenders of Ukraine”.