war crimes in Ukraine

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Radical shift in high-profile charges over killing of journalist Pavel Sheremet in Ukraine

Halya Coynash
There has been a significant change in the charges against the three suspects six months after a press briefing, at which President Zelensky, Interior Minister Avakov and the Prosecutor General made a mockery of the presumption of innocence

There has been a flurry of movement in the high-profile investigation into the murder of journalist Pavel Sheremet, including a significant change in the charges against the three suspects.  It may be coincidence, however the developments have come immediately after comments about the case by President Volodymyr Zelensky during a press conference on 20 May.  Zelensky made it fairly clear that it was Interior Minister Arsen Avakov “who started this” and that if the case does not hold up in court,  Avakov will be held responsible, with this likely leading to “staffing changes”. Such candour is all the more disturbing given allegations from the outset that the highly publicized arrests and press briefing on 12 December 2019 helped Avakov prove ‘progress’ and become the only minister to retain his post after the presidential and parliamentary elections in 2019.

Six months have passed since that press briefing, attended by Zelensky, Avakov and the then Prosecutor General Ruslan Riaboshapka, made a mockery of the presumption of innocence.  Well-known musician and war veteran Andriy Antonenko (Riffmaster) and paediatric surgeon and military volunteer Yulia Kuzmenko remain in detention, while a third person, military nurse Yana Duhar is under night house arrest.   

Although the press conference clearly suggested that there were five suspects, including two former military volunteers Iryna and Vladyslav Hryshchenko, who were already under arrest on different charges, there is still nothing to indicate that these two people have been charged in connection with Sheremet’s murder.  That is, at very least, disturbing, especially since Hryshchenko’s DNA traces on an explosive device were reported during the press briefing on the Sheremet investigation, and since Vladyslav  Hryshchenko has said that the investigator offered to free his wife if he “took the Sheremet murder upon himself”.

Charges changed

Lawyers representing Antonenko and Kuzmenko reported on 21 May that the investigators had both added and altered the charges against one or more of the suspects.   

The two new charges are of deliberate destruction of property (Article 194 § 2 of Ukraine’s Criminal Code) and of possession of explosive devices (Article 263 § 1). 

At the same time, the charges have been changed against Antonenko, Kuzmenko and Duhar.

Antonenko is no longer accused of having organized the killing, but is charged with carried it out, by prior conspiracy.

Kuzmenko is still accused of having planted the explosive device during the early hours of 16 July 2016, but not, as previously, with detonating the device. It is not clear who the investigators believe detonated it.

A separate criminal investigation has been initiated regarding the ‘unidentified individuals’ who are now alleged to have organized the crime.  According to defence lawyer Vitaly Kolomiyets, the new charge speaks of “mystical unidentified organizers with the features of a law enforcement body”.

Nor does this seem the only hint of involvement by a person or persons linked to the law enforcement bodies.  The police have reportedly said that the organizers were “familiar, among other things, with the work of the law enforcement bodies”. 

Back in 2017, it was reported that during the night that the bomb was planted an SBU [Security Service] officer had been near Sheremet’s apartment block. The SBU asserted that the man was no longer one of their employees.

No motive

Back in December, during Antonenko’s detention hearing, it was learned that he was supposed to have organized the murder, and been present when the bomb was planted.  This, it was claimed, because “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 alleged motive elicited outrage in court from Antonenko who said he had grown up in a Jewish neighbourhood, was himself half-Jewish and that such allegations were an insult against him and his family.

The ‘motive’ also made no sense since the murder did not attract public attention to such racist views, nor was there any evidence at all that attempts had been made to do so.

It seems likely, however, that this ‘motive’ has now been discarded for another reason. The above words, supposedly referring to Antonenko’s motives, appear to have been copy-pasted from an indictment against another person altogether, back in 2015 (before Sheremet’s murder).

With the ultranationalist, white supremacist allegations gone, and ‘unidentified individuals’ supposed to have organized the crime, the prosecution’s case seems disturbingly lacking in a motive.

The indictment apparently now reads that “unidentified individuals, acting for personal motives, decided to carry out an extremely high-profile event in society in order to provoke numerous acts of protest”. 

It is not clear why Sheremet’s unexplained murder should have been expected to do this, and it did not.  It is seemingly not explained how these unidentified individuals enlisted the three suspects.  That has, however, enabled the investigators to avoid another major failing in the case, namely that the only two people who had limited contact with each other were Antonenko and Kuzmenko.  There is nothing to suggest that either of them knew Duhar. 

Now it is supposed to have been the unidentified ‘organizers’ who ‘sponsored’ the activities of the suspects and paid any expenses.  How (or if) the investigators are explaining why a well-known musician and veteran and a children’s surgeon, both of whom are also parents, would have taken part in such a crime is not clear.  If it is now suggested that this was a commissioned crime, it is difficult to understand how the identity of at least the ‘organizers’ go-betweens could still remain unclear after six months at least where the investigators can examine all records of telephone conversations and probe the movements of the three suspects.  #

Duhar’s alleged role, in photographing CCTV cameras near the scene of the crime has always seemed rather unnecessary, and it is noticeable that the courts, which have repeatedly rejected calls to release Antonenko and Kuzmenko, have steadily reduced the preventive measures against the young nurse.

Other concerns

Although Avakov and his deputy claimed at the press briefing on 12 December, that there was a huge amount of evidence to back the charges, what has been made public thus far seems less than convincing. almost immediately obtained copies of the ‘expert assessments’ regarding similarities between the CCTV footage of the couple believed to have planted the bomb, as well as of the person who is claimed to have photographed the cameras, on the one hand, and the three suspects on the other.  These seemed far less clear-cut than suggested, and Slidstvo positively called them contradictory, an assertion the investigators denied.

Since then, SENSE Consulting have produced four videos which certainly appear to cast grave doubts over much of the supposed evidence.  Even if the alleged alibis cannot be proven in court, there are discrepancies which are near impossible to find credible explanations for.  Antonenko is considerably taller than the estimated height of the man believed to have planted the bomb, and his beard and sideburns are different on photos from the same period.  Duhar looks quite different from the woman seen on the photo, and has a tattoo on the same arm that the woman on the CCTV footage can be seen raising (with no tattoo visible).

It was reported on 22 May that the investigation is now complete, so presumably the case is to be passed to the court.  Back in February, around a month before being removed from his post as Prosecutor General, Riaboshapka acknowledged that there was insufficient evidence to pass the case to the court.  Now fundamental parts of a case which was trumpeted as solved six months ago have radically changed, with the motives of those accused of the crime remaining as elusive as ever, and multiple other questions also unanswered.

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