Antonenko released from custody with Ukraine’s Sheremet murder trial arousing ever more doubts
Andriy Antonenko has been released under 24-hour house arrest after spending over 500 days in custody accused over the 2016 killing of Belarusian journalist and former dissident Pavel Sheremet. Although house arrest was less than the release requested on the personal guarantee of two MPs and the Armed Forces Press Officer, it is still an immense relief given the length of time he has been held on charges which already aroused concern even before revelations of a possible Belarusian lead in the case in January this year. Rather than investigating this new lead, Interior Minister Arsen Avakov has used at least two appearances on television to try to influence public opinion in favour of the police version first presented at a high-profile press briefing attended by himself, Ukraine’s President, Prosecutor General and the Head and Deputy Head of Police.
During one of these interviews, on 2 March 2021, Avakov focused on the word ‘jury’ and claimed that this “court by jury” had several times already refused to release Antonenko from detention. Although Ukraine’s jury system does differ fairly radically from other countries’, Avakov’s mention of the jury in this context was pure manipulation. 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. The aim was very clearly to try convince the public that there really were grounds for the charges themselves, which is also inadmissible interference in court proceedings.
As reported earlier this week, the Council of Europe’s Safety of Journalists Platform has called on Ukraine “to undertake a fresh investigation” into the killing of Sheremet, who had both Belarusian and Russian citizenship but had been permanently based in Kyiv after leaving his Russian media post in protest at the post-Crimean invasion propaganda and disinformation on Russian state media. The call comes four months after leaked tapes pointed to earlier plans by the Belarusian KGB to kill Sheremet, and 500 days after the arrests were announced of three Ukrainians with no obvious motive Although the tapes’ authenticity has been confirmed, there is nothing to suggest that the Ukrainian authorities have seriously investigated this lead. Instead the trial is taking place, very slowly, of the three Ukrainians: Antonenko, who is a well-known musician and military PR officer; paediatric surgeon Yulia Kuzmenko and Yana Duhar, a military nurse. Antonenko, who has young children, had been in detention all of this time, until 30 April, while Kuzmenko, who also has a young son, was in custody for seven months and is now also under house arrest.
Although the Ukrainian authorities were aware of the tapes back in December 2020, they only made any comment after information was published in Russian by an organization calling itself the Belarusian People’s Tribunal, and in English by EUobserver.
The taped conversation was revealed by Igor Makar, formerly a Belarusian special forces officer, now an opposition activist living in hiding in an EU country. It dates back to 11 April 2012 with a voice that appears to be that of Vadim Zaitsev, the head of the Belarusian KGB head. According to Makar, Zaitsev was speaking to members of the Alpha Group’s Seventh Department, a secret unit allegedly “created to target the regime's political enemies”. The Current Time TV channel commissioned a study from a forensic unit in St. Petersburg, with this confirming that the voice on the tape is the same as that on several recordings of Zaitsev’s voice.
On the tape, Zaitsev discusses killing three Belarusians living in exile in Germany and also says (as per the EUobserver translation) “We should be working Sheremet, who is a massive pain in the arse” Sheremet’s killing had 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. Antonenko’s defence team pointed out that the crime was committed on the anniversary of Aleksandr Lukashenka’s first inauguration as President in 1994, a date that, according to media reports, he still celebrates.
While a tape from 2012 may not constitute a smoking gun for an assassination in 2016, it certainly seems to provide confirmation of what many had long suspected. A number of opposition figures have been killed or at least disappeared without trace under Lukashenka, and Sheremet, even living in Kyiv, remained an enemy.
The Ukrainian National Police ‘version’
It seemed clear that, if authentic, the conversation would point to the deployment of a specially trained KGB unit for killing the Lukashenka regime’s opponents. Yet statements posted on the official police website on 4 and 5 January 2021 spoke only of investigative measures aimed at finding “those who commissioned the killing of Pavel Sheremet”. Police spokesperson Artem Shevchenko made it even clearer that the police were in no hurry to change their explanation for the crime and even consider the possibility that they had arrested the wrong people. He claimed that the 2012 tape ‘confirmed’ their version and the involvement of Antonenko; Kuzmenko and Duhar in the crime.
Worth noting that the original version which was presented at the press briefing, eliciting congratulatory statements from President Volodymyr Zelensky and the then Prosecutor General Ruslan Riaboshapka, accused Antonenko of organizing the crime. Six months after that original fanfare (and just days after Zelensky made it clear that Interior Minister Avakov’s job might be on the line if the case fell through in court), the investigators announced major changes to the indictment. The latter now stated that the defendants’ actions had been prompted by other unidentified individuals. So you see, Shevchenko claimed, a Belarusian link would completely fit their version.
It is hard to take this seriously. We have, on the one hand, a possible Belarusian KGB death squad, on the other - three Ukrainians, all professional people with no link to organized crime and no obvious motive. Although the police presentation at the press conference on 12 December 2019 did throw out some insinuations regarding unexplained amounts of money, the prosecution does not appear to be claiming that the crime was committed for profit. 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”.
It is unclear why anybody should have expected the killing of Sheremet to provoke such protests, and this motive would certainly clash with any Belarusian link.
During the 12 December 2019 press briefing, Yevhen Koval, Deputy Police Head, asserted, among other things, that the police had considered, yet found no proof, for three other possible explanations of Sheremet’s killing. They had thus eliminated the explanation that Sheremet had been killed due to his professional activities “in Ukraine, Belarus or Russia”, or that he had not been the target; or that he had been killed as the result of a domestic or inter-personal conflict. This, he alleged, left the version they opted for, namely “destabilization of the socio-political situation in the country through the killing of a well-known figure.”
Any figure, according to this, would do, and it was quite immaterial who Sheremet was and whom he had annoyed through his journalist and opposition activities.
Unanswered questions and major discrepancies
Merely using the term ‘замовники’ [or those commissioning a crime] does not answer critical questions about how a Belarusian KGB link can be reconciled with the current case against Antonenko; Kuzmenko and Duhar. There was nothing to stop Belarusians coming into Ukraine under cover to carry out the crime, and there was surely every reason for them not to rely on a paediatric surgeon; a musician and a nurse, especially given the prosecution’s failure to explain why the three Ukrainians are supposed to have become involved.
Other problems with the case have been discussed here in detail. They include:
The fact that at the press briefing five suspects were spoken of, including two military volunteers Vladislav and Inna Hryshchenko. It was clearly stated during the briefing that it was the supposed similarity between the explosive device which the Hryshchenkos are accused of having used in a separate crime and the device used to kill Sheremet that led to Antonenko first being linked with Sheremet’s murder.
The Hryshchenkos have never been charged in connection with the Sheremet case, and both have now been released from custody unlike Antonenko.
It is quite unclear why Antonenko has now been held in detention for over 500 days. The charge is undoubtedly serious, but this per se does not constitute grounds for holding a man who has not been proven guilty in custody. He is, furthermore, accused of being one of the two people who are known to have planted the explosive device under the car Sheremet was using. Kuzmenko is supposed to have been the other, yet she was finally released under house arrest in August last year.
There are critical discrepancies between Antonenko’s height and that estimated from video footage in two separate studies from 2016. There are similar discrepancies with respect to the difference in height between the two believed perpetrators, and between Antonenko and Kuzmenko.
There are doubts about the ‘expert assessments’ on which the case appears to largely be based, including that from a British expert on so-called ‘forensic gait analysis’, Ivan Birch. His opinion has only been presented in Ukrainian translation, without any indication of who the translator was and, most importantly, without the original. An application to have the original provided was rejected by the court on bizarre grounds. The defence had asked to see it, in part to check the original against the translation. The court, however, claimed that “these circumstances can be checked by other means, for example, through a study of the opinion of the expert; details regarding the commissioning of the relevant expert assessment and by questioning the expert in a court hearing.” Such questioning should reveal any major discrepancies but at some unspecified time in the future. Until then, the court is asserting, one can ascertain whether this is a bona fide representation of the English text by reading it in Ukrainian translation and by seeing what was commissioned. At present, there is no real proof that there is an English original, with the alleged document waved about during a police video, but never provided for scrutiny.
It should further be noted that such forensic gait analysis is by no means conclusive in itself. The ‘Primer for Courts’ produced by the Royal Society of Edinburgh makes it quite clear that gait analysis from two videos cannot be based solely on those videos, but must be backed by other independent evidence of the person’s characteristic gait. In this case, it would appear that any conclusion that Birch reach was made solely on comparing too lots of video footage.
The lack of a credible motive
Concerns about the chances for a fair trial, given the egregious violation of the three suspects’ right to the presumption of innocence during the press briefing, and later, especially in interviews and TV talk show appearances by Ukraine’s Interior Minister Avakov.