war crimes in Ukraine

The Tribunal for Putin (T4P) global initiative was set up in response to the all-out war launched by Russia against Ukraine in February 2022.

Why murder the lawyer of captured Russian military intelligence officers?

Halya Coynash
The brutal murder of Yury Hrabovsky, the lawyer representing one of two believed Russian GRU officers captured in 2015 in Donbas, came at a time when the men’s exchange for Ukrainians held prisoner in Russia was being openly discussed. While it is widely assumed that his murder is linked with the case, it is less clear who is behind it.

The brutal murder of Yury Hrabovsky, the lawyer representing one of two believed Russian GRU officers captured in the Luhansk oblast in May 2015, came at a time when the men’s exchange for Nadiya Savchenko and possibly other Ukrainians held prisoner in Russia was being openly discussed. While it is widely assumed that his murder is linked with the case, it is far less clear who is behind it. 

Hrabovsky had been last seen on March 5, and his disappearance was formally reported on March 10.  A suspected homicide investigation had been initiated at that time, with colleagues dismissing the message posted on Hrabovsky’s Facebook page as clearly out of character and faked.  The message was written as though from him in Egypt where he had purportedly fled because of threats. 

Russia was swift to react on March 25 with a statement claiming that the Kyiv authorities had, “despite all warnings failed to ensure Hrabovsky’s safety”.  The statement goes on to claim that “the move again to intimidation and physical elimination of dissidents, and now of lawyers indicates the intensification in Ukraine of anti-democratic, totalitarian tendencies which in no way comply with the European norms of morality and law which Kyiv likes to discuss”. 

Such overt efforts to use the murder of Hrabovsky for their own ends, according to analyst Volodymyr Fesenko only fuels suspicion that the  Russian Security Service [FSB] could be involved.  Fesenko notes that it is Russia that has something to gain from Hrabovsky’s killing, not Ukraine.  Other observers, including Valentin Rybin, the new lawyer taken on for Aleksandrov, believe that if either Ukraine’s SBU or Russia’s FSB were behind the abduction and murder, it would have been carried out better. 

Certainly any attempt to accuse Ukraine’s Security Service with involvement runs up against the problem that even if there were some reason for seeking Hrabovsky’s murder, which is questionable, there was nothing to be gained from finding the lawyer’s body.    

  left to right Yevgeny Yerofeyev, Aleksandr Aleksandrov

As reported here, after Aleksandrov and Yevgeny Yerofeyev were captured in May 2015, both men told independent observers from the OSCE, Russian human rights activists and both Ukrainian and Russian journalists that they were serving Russian military intelligence officers on duty in Ukraine.  Both men made it clear to Russian independent journalist Pavel Kanygin that they felt abandoned and asked for help in contacting their families.  The problem was not at the Ukrainian end,  The men had full access to phones, but the lines appeared to be blocked, or their families did not answer.  Russia’s Defence Ministry acknowledged that they were Russian, but denied that they were serving GRU officers, claiming that they had ‘taken leave’ at the end of 2014. 

Yerofeyev changed his story sometime in the summer of 2015, Aleksandrov later, with Hrabovsky reported to have been taken on, replacing the previous lawyer Konstantin Kravtsov.  While Russian reports have all claimed that Hrabovsky was not taking any fee for his work, Kravchuk told Novaya Gazeta that Hrabovsky had been hired by the family and that both men would probably repeat the Russian Defence Ministry’s line that the two men had been members of the ‘militia’ of the so-called ‘Luhansk people’s republic’. 

Most Russian reports in the last two days have concealed the men’s believed links with the Russian military.  It should be stressed that there is considerable proof and the men’s own testimony, given without Ukrainians present, which would almost certainly convince a Ukrainian court and western countries that the men had been serving GRU officers. 

Kravchuk suggested then that the two men were convinced that they were to be part of an exchange and that their new line meant that they would have an easier time when returned to Moscow, while dragging the trial out until the exchange could be organized. 

Hrabovsky’s disappearance had initially seemed part of the same tactic of dragging the case out.  Tragically, this was not the case. 

Despite the Russian claims, it is not at all clear that Hrabovsky had received threats before, although he did tell a Novaya Gazeta correspondent that he had received negative text messages, etc. after he took on the case. 

At a briefing on March 25, Ukraine’s Military Prosecutor Anatoly Matios said that they were considering various motives for the killing, with one of these a “specially planned operation” trying to implicate the security service.  Both men detained are Ukrainian nationals with one of them found with a faked SBU ID document.  They are alleged to have been paid for the killing. 

Matios explained that Hrabvosky had been abducted in Odesa, filled with psychotropic drugs and taken to Kyiv.  From there he was taken to Zhaskiv where he was shot dead and his body buried. 

Two men were arrested, the second on March 24 who took Ukrainian officers to the place the lawyer was buried.   One of the men in custody said that they had put an electric bracelet on Hrabovsky, telling him that this had an explosive in it which they would use if he did not obey their commands.  This was reportedly used when the abductor turned up with Hrabovsky at his office and removed various items of value and documents.

Matios strongly criticized an aide to the other lawyer, Oksana Sokolovska who seems to have shared an office with Hrabovsky.  Matios asserts that the investigators lost valuable time because Sokolovska’s aide said he did not recognize the detained man who is believed to have turned up with Hrabovsky.  Sokolovska has denied this. 

Novaya Gazeta reports that unnamed lawyers in Kyiv have suggested that “Ukrainian radical patriotic forces” could be involved, since Hrabovsky was involved in two cases involving people whom Ukraine is accusing of hostile action.  This would not explain why they tried to pretend to be from Ukraine’s Security Service.  

Whether part of an exchange or not, Ukraine has everything to gain from a proper trial for the two believe Russian military intelligence officers, nothing from Hrabovsky’s murder 

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