war crimes in Ukraine

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20 years after Gongadze murder, the killers of another Ukrainian journalist are being protected

Halya Coynash

The widow of murdered Ukrainian journalist and civic activist Vasyl Serhiyenko has addressed an impassioned appeal to President Volodymyr Zelensky, asking him to take the case under his personal control.   She has strong grounds, since, six years after Serhiyenko was murdered, not only is there no progress in bringing those who commissioned the killing to justice, but the trial of those suspected of carrying out the crime is being sabotaged. Valentina Serhiyenko notes that every time there appears to be a breakthrough in the criminal investigation into her husband’s killing, information gets leaked, the work of investigators and prosecutors is obstructed, or, as in this case, there is pressure and attempts are made to remove prosecutors from the case.

The appeal was issued soon after the Pechersky District Court in Kyiv on 19 August  rejected an application from the public prosecutor to remand in custody one of the men suspected of involvement in Serhiyenko’s death, Viktor Horbenko.  Although this was on a separate charge – of having given deliberately false testimony, that additional charge is directly linked with events which give grounds for suspecting a new attempt to pervert the course of justice with respect to the Serhiyenko case.  

As reported, back in June 2019, Horbenko and the four other men suspected of Serhiyenko’s murder were all still in custody.  The Special Investigations Department wanted Horbenko transferred to Kyiv for questioning in connection with another case where the investigators were trying to establish who had commissioned a crime. Since there are strong grounds for believing that the defendants all worked for the same boss, Horbenko’s testimony could have been very important for the Serhiyenko case as well, and the investigators clearly needed to separate him from the other men if there was to be any hope that he would give such incriminating testimony. Details of how their attempt was sabotaged, and the role played by judge Lyudmila Synytsya from the Horodyshche Court can be found here. Despite repeated warnings from the prosecutor that her behaviour in divulging confidential information carried criminal liability, Synytsya continued to effectively inform everybody present in the courtroom, including men in the same SIZO as Horbenko, that he was about to be transferred to Kyiv where he could well give testimony against them.  Horbenko promptly denied writing any application for a transfer, claiming his signature to have been forged. Despite it being abundantly clear why Horbenko would now feel the need to lie, Synytsya chose to believe that the investigators had falsified documents, ordered that Horbenko not be transferred, and soon afterwards released him for custody.  The investigators thus lost a potentially crucial crown witness.

On 16 July 2020, Synytsya was informed that she is facing criminal charges over her behaviour in court that day.

On12 August, Ukraine’s High Council of Justice [HCJ] rejected the application from the Prosecutor General’s Office to temporarily suspend Synytsya.  Indeed, they went even further, and addressed an appeal to Prosecutor General Iryna Venediktova that she identify and bring to account “people who carried out actions which violate the guarantees of judicial independence.”  It is certainly true that judges should not be in danger of criminal prosecutions for their rulings, however in this case, it is next to impossible to find a good reason for Synytsya’s actions by which she gravely, and despite repeated warnings, compromised the investigation. 

While the killing of Georgy Gongadze is rightly well-known far beyond Ukraine, there has been relatively little attention to the killing on 4 April 2014 of Vasyl Serhiyenko, although the similarities between the two cases extend beyond their common journalist profession. In both cases, there is widespread suspicion as to who commissioned the killings.  There are, however, differences.  Those who carried out criminal orders and killed Gongadze are serving long sentences, while in Serhiyenko’s case, the sabotage seems to be extending to those believed to have carried out a horrific attack and murder.

During the months before his murder, 58-year-old Serhiyenko was reportedly involved in gathering information about the former governor of the oblast, Serhiy Tulub and Hennady Bobov. The latter was, until July 2019, an MP, and wields considerable power in the Cherkasy oblast. Serhiyenko was, for example, probing suspected illegal deals involving reserve land which Bobov was allegedly using for his own private purposes.

On 4 April 2014, Serhiyenko was abducted from outside his home, with the assailants beating him, as his elderly mother pleaded for them to have mercy.  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. 

Since a first trial was close to conclusion when it needed to be stopped for objective reasons in May 2017, it seems likely that it was the inclusion of Melnyk as suspected organizer that has caused effective paralysis since then, with the trial in June 2019 having got no further than in 2016.  By now only one of the defendants – Voronkov – is still in custody.

It is small wonder that Valentina Serhiyenko speaks of “systematic obstruction”. She asks Zelensky to take the case under his control since we are now seeing “persecution of the investigators and prosecutors who are really trying to prosecute the person who commissioned the crime and to not let the killers go unpunished.”

She asserts that it was clear from the outset that this had been a commissioned crime, but since the suspected culprit is an influential figure in the Cherkasy oblast, the Cherkasy police and prosecutor’s office had confined themselves to prosecuting those believed to have committed the crime.  

Valentina Serhiyenko says that it was only after her numerous appeals to the President and head of the enforcement bodies that the case was passed to the Special Investigations Department and that the suspected organizer was arrested.  She points out that the latter (Melnyk) is linked with Bobov.

It should be noted that Yevhenia Zakrevska, the lawyer representing the Serhiyenko family, has long spoken of there being evidence to back the allegations about Bobov, yet they have never come to anything.  Former Prosecutor General Yuri Lutsenko once tried to get his parliamentary immunity removed, but over tax fraud.  Rather questionably, the attempt was dropped after Bobov paid the money involved.

Valentina Serhiyenko is convinced that pressure is being brought to bear by the person who commissioned the murder on judges since any conviction in this case would make that individual’s prosecution also more likely.  She is appalled that Synytsya has not only not been suspended, but is actually still the judge in the trial of the men accused of killing her husband.

One of the requests to President Zelensky in this respect seems especially urgent, namely that he apply to the Supreme Court to change the jurisdiction for this case so that it be sent to any other part of the country but the Cherkasy oblast where Bobov has such enormous influence. 

Serhiyenko’s elderly mother died last year, not having lived to see anybody answer for the brutal abduction, torture and killing of her son.

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