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Interior Minister Avakov accused of manipulating public opinion over Ukraine’s most controversial trial

Halya Coynash

From left Arsen Avakov, Yana Duhar, Yulia Kuzmenko and Andriy Antonenko

Over recent days Ukraine’s Interior Minister Arsen Avakov has spoken in two television interviews of the high-profile trial of three people accusing of killing Belarusian journalist Pavel Sheremet, with his comments disturbingly misleading.  Earlier statements from Avakov are already part of a case against Ukraine at the European Court of Human Rights, and the same concerns about violations of the defendants’ right to a fair trial are likely to be raised over these comments as well. 

Since the trial hearing scheduled for 9 March was cancelled without any notice, and one of the defendants, musician and military volunteer Andriy Antonenko, has now been in detention for 15 months, we will begin with Avakov’s baffling words about this detention.  In his interview with Dmytro Gordon on 2 March, Avakov focused strongly on the word ‘jury’ and claimed that this “court by jury” had several times already refused to release Antonenko from detention.  Although it is worth noting that Ukraine’s jury system differs fairly radically from other countries’, Avakov’s mention of the jury in this context was misleading for a quite different reason.  Article 331 § 3 of Ukraine’s Criminal Procedure Code states quite unambiguously that, even where a jury is involved, decisions on detention are taken by the presiding judge.  It is simply inconceivable that Avakov was not aware of this, however he may well have understood that many listeners would not know.  In the statement issued by the defence lawyers representing Antonenko;  paediatric surgeon Yulia Kuzmenko and military nurse Yana Duhar following the interviews, the lawyers point out that in none of these cases has there ever been any assessment of the evidence against the defendants.  In extending Antonenko’s detention, the argument each time has merely been that the charges against him are serious.  The lawyers note that this lack of additional grounds is already a serious human rights violation.  It also begs the question of why Kuzmenko was freed from detention and has been under house arrest since August 2020, since both she and Antonenko are accused of having planted the bomb under Sheremet’s car during the night from 19-20 July 2016.   The defence lawyers assert that Avakov’s words make it clear why Antonenko remains in detention.  The real aim, they believe, is to legitimize and give moral justification for the actions of the police and “the slander” [against their clients] from Avakov and President Volodymyr Zelensky and not to avoid Antonenko going into hiding or trying to influence witnesses.  This, they maintain, falls under Article 18 of the European Convention on Human Rights which states that “The restrictions permitted under this Convention to the said rights and freedoms shall not be applied for any purpose other than those for which they have been prescribed.”   This article does not form part of many European Court of Human Rights judgements, but Ukraine was found to have violated it in 2012 through the politically motivated persecution under President Viktor Yanukovych of one of Avakov’s predecessors, Yury Lutsenko.

The second interview was given to TSN presenter Natalia Moseichuk on 2 March.  In it, Avakov claims that the defence’s counter-arguments against those of the investigators are ‘myths’.  After saying that he cannot, “of course”, go into details, he gives his version of three alleged ‘myths’.  Two concern supposedly claimed ‘alibis’ which the defence lawyers say have never been part of the defence’s case.  The first of Avakov’s assertions is worth quoting in full (from the original in Russian):

when they say “no, the height is wrong because there is no expert opinion”, yet there is an expert opinion, and the height is right, and this question is described there. “

Height is indeed one of the arguments which the defence has repeated from the outset, however the rest of Avakov’s words are entirely inaccurate.  In 2016, there were two expert assessments, screenshots of which can be found here.  These could only estimate the height of the two perpetrators from available CCTV footage, however both gave similar estimates that the taller of the two figures is 170 or 172 cm, with a margin of error of 3%.  This height was, of course, of a person in outside footwear.  Antonenko’s height, without footwear, is 180 cm.  The lawyers comment: “The height is wrong” not because “there is no expert assessment”, but precisely because there are, and in fact two of them”.  They go on to point out that in response to this the prosecution has only managed to come up with another assessment from a person whom, they assert, has grade 5 status, which is the lowest.  This person, moreover, does not provide a different assessment, simply says that he is unable to make such an assessment from the video.  

Avakov concludes by claiming there to be a huge number of such allegedly disproven ‘myths’, and that, in contrast, there are virtually no discrepancies in the prosecution’s case.  It is for the court to decide whether the defence is right in asserting this to be untrue.  The lawyers, however, also point out that Avakov’s remarks are interference in the work of the court and a violation of the presumption of innocence. Through his words, they say, the Interior Minister has effectively praised the prosecution’s case and assessed it as weighty and irrefutable.

The lawyers point out that it was, in fact, the police that, from the first fateful press briefing on 12 December 2019, circulated ‘myths’ and details that never became part of the prosecution’s case, but were also never refuted.  

That press briefing, which was broadcast live by very many channels, was addressed not only by Avakov, but by President Zelensky; the then Prosecutor General Ruslan Riaboshapka; the new Head of Police Ihor Klymenko and his deputy, Yevhen Koval. Although the speakers all used terms like ‘suspects’, the case was, undoubtedly, presented as having been solved. 

Photos of Antonenko; Kuzmenko and Duhar were shown throughout the briefing, together with those 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.  Hryshchenko has said that the investigator offered to free his wife if he “took the Sheremet murder upon himself”.  He refused to do so, and neither he, nor his wife are facing any charges over the murder.  Although facing other serious charges, they too have both been released from custody, with only Antonenko still behind bars.

This is, at very least, worrying since it was very clearly understood during the briefing that the supposed similarity between the explosive device used to kill Sheremet, and that which the Hryshchenkos are accused of planting had led to Antonenko first being linked with Sheremet’s murder.   

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. 

The defence lawyers point in their statement to other myths claimed during that same briefing or elsewhere  – about Kuzmenko having supposedly suddenly gained a lot of money; about telephones having been deliberately switched off, with this allegedly being uncharacteristic or about Kuzmenko’s phone being geolocated near the crime scene, although she had only owned the said phone from 2018.

During the interview with Gordon, Avakov mentioned, in very broad terms, the recent revelations, which point to a Belarusian KGB link to the killing. Avakov acted as though such allegations, were they to be proven correct, would merely point to who had ‘commissioned’ the crime, and would have no bearing on the trial underway. 

This is hard to take seriously for a number of reasons. During the original press briefing, Koval gave the alleged motive as having been the “destabilization of the political situation in the state through the murder of a well-known individual”.  He presented this as proven, claiming that other motives had been totally excluded.

Despite allegations being made during the same briefing about suspects having made large purchases (which might suggest a crime for gain), it transpired the next day that Antonenko was alleged to have been driven by “ultra-nationalist, white supremacist” ideas.  That motive fizzled almost immediately, probably less because Antonenko is half-Jewish and was very clearly insulted by the suggestion, than because the investigators were caught out having totally copy-pasted this supposed ‘motive’ from an entirely different indictment.

After Zelensky made a less than veiled threat that Avakov would be held to answer if the case collapsed, the charges changed with Antonenko no longer accused of having organized the crime, but only of having carried it out, by prior conspiracy.  Kuzmenko was now only accused of having planted the explosive device, but not, as previously, with detonating it.   The Hryshchenkos were nowhere to be seen).

The indictment now states that the crime was initiated by unidentified individuals who “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.  Aside from unexplained allegations during the original briefing regarding unexpected purchases, it remains unclear why the three suspects are alleged to have agreed to carry out the crime.  It is also not in the slightest evident why anybody should have thought that this crime would provoke numerous protests.  Such a motive essentially removes who Pavel Sheremet was, why he was hated by the regimes of both Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenka and his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, and whom his journalist work might have angered in Ukraine. 

It is this indictment that police spokesperson Artem Shevchenko first, and now Avakov, are suggesting can be reconciled with the intercepted Belarusian KGB conversation in 2012.  During that conversation, a person who sounds like Belarusian KGB head Vadim Zaitsev  talks about plans to kill three Belarusians living in exile in Germany and also mentioning Sheremet.   The latter’s killing, he says, needs 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. While no hard evidence has yet been presented to prove that a Belarusian hit squad was involved, both Belarus and Russia are known for state-sponsored killings. There is nothing, however, to suggest that either regime has recruited locals without any criminal background to carry out such crimes.


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