Five years in detention despite an alibi for the murder that sparked Loshchynivka anti-Roma riots
Almost five years after the arrest of 21-year-old Mykhailo Chebotar led to appalling anti-Roma riots in Loshchynivka (Odesa oblast), a witness has finally given testimony in court that almost certainly means the young man did not murder 8-year-old Angelina. Both the woman and her sister had provided the testimony immediately after the murder was discovered on 27 August 2016, and the fact that it was ignored is only one of many disturbing grounds for suspecting a grave miscarriage of justice.
The defence had long wanted to question Valentina Kazanzhi and Veronika Dobreva but ran up against problems since the women are not living where registered, in Loshchynivka, and did not answer phone calls. The prosecutor had, for reasons that can only be guessed, chosen not to summon the women although their testimony is undoubtedly of enormous importance. Last autumn, the Prymorsky Court, where Chebotar is on trial allowed the defence’s application for the women to be forcibly brought to the court, although even this took six months.
Kazanzhi was finally questioned, by video link, on 18 May 2021. She explained that at 21.00 on 26 August 2016, she, her sister and two female friends had gone to the Fortuna Bar in Loshchynivka. At around 0.30 – 1.00 they had gone out to smoke close to the bar, and stood near two electricity posts which are not far from the home where Angelina lived with her mother, stepfather and younger brother, nor from the garden behind their home, where the little girl’s body was found. As soon as they came out, they heard screams from the direction of the garden. Kazanzhi demonstrated to the court several times the sound that she had heard, and said that at the time they thought that people were having a row. She says that she was already home at 2.00, with this crucial since the prosecution is claiming that Chebotar committed the murder after that time.
Kazanzhi went on to explain that a schoolfriend had rung her in the morning and told her about Angelina’s murder. It was then, she says, that she understood that the screams they had heard could be linked to this. She went to the police and was questioned by the investigators.
Presiding Judge Viktor Ivanov asked the witness to specify when exactly she had heard the screams and she reiterated that it had been between 0.30 and 1.00 on 27 August.
Kazanzhi had seen Chebotar in the bar, but believed that at the moment they went out into the street, he was not inside. She did, however see Oleksandr Matyash, Angelina’s stepfather on the street, near the bar.
In fact, the indictment states that from 22.00 on 26 August until 2.00 on 27 August Chebotar was with a large group of people, first at the home of Matyash’ brother, and then in the Fortuna Bar.
The screams were thus at a time when Chebotar has an alibi, and when, in all likelihood, Oleksandr Matyash does not.
Chebotar has now been in custody for almost five years, although there have long been other concerns about the case against him, and attempts to get around what appears to be an alibi for the period when the little girl was murdered.
Both the original forensic assessment, and a second one reported in November 2020, would suggest that Chebotar could not have committed the crime.
As reported, the initial assessment by forensic expert Oleh Halev had given the time of the murder as between 22.00 and 1.25 a.m. when Chebotar has an alibi. The prosecution has instead claimed that Chebotar committed the crime between 2.30 (from when he does not have an alibi) and 3 a.m., when Angelina’s mother arrived home from work and found that her daughter was missing.
Halev was called in as a witness on 13 December 2019 and asked questions clearly aimed at stretching out the possible time of the crime to 2.30 a.m. Although Halev wavered a little under the intense questioning, he did state that he believed the latest possible time to have been 2 a.m.
The second forensic examination, signed by Hryhory Kryvda, head of the Odesa Regional Bureau of Forensic Medical Assessments, essentially repeated Halev’s original assessment, namely that the little girl had been murdered between 23.25 and 1.25, when Chebotar was in a bar with a lot of witnesses.
Doubts had already been raised as to how Chebotar could have committed the crime within the space of half an hour (from 2.30 to 3.00). In fact, neither forensic examination leaves any possibility that Angelina was murdered that late.
There is other evidence pointing to Chebotar’s innocence. A different forensic institute did not find Chebotar’s DNA in the samples taken from under the victim’s fingernails (of her right hand). Suspicion was earlier reported that apparently damning evidence against Chebotar might have been faked, since the hand swab taken from the suspect contained only the murder victim’s DNA, and not his own. This is especially disturbing since it points to deliberate falsification, rather than merely omissions. There is no other DNA incriminating Chebotar despite this allegedly having been a sexual crime carried out in haste and in the dark. According defence lawyer, Andriy Leshchenko, there was no trace of Chebotar’s sperm on the little girl herself, or on her clothes.
Both expert assessments did, however, find biological traces of a “third, unidentified individual” on the victim. For this reason, it would have seemed logical to have ordered a DNA test from Angelina’s stepfather, Oleksandr Matyash, especially since he does not have an alibi for the entire time frame given in the forensic assessments. It remains unclear why two applications for this, first in November 2019, then in April 2020, were rejected. The second application had been opposed by prosecutor Svitlana Kolohreva, although it was made shortly after journalists from TV Ukraina carried out their own investigation and found that the traces in question seemed to match the DNA of Angelina’s stepfather.
Chebotar was arrested soon after the body was found, supposedly because his cap was found in Angelina’s house, with this leading police sniffer dogs to his home, where the police also found the believed murder weapon – a screwdriver.
During the period specified by two forensic assessments, Chebotar was either walking with Matyash from the latter’s brother’s home, or was with others in the bar. While walking only with Matyash, they dropped into the house to check on the children. Chebotar told the television journalists that both men had walked into the house. Angelina’s little brother was fast asleep, but the little girl was not in her bed and, according to Chebotar, Matyash (who had been drinking from early evening) began shouting. Chebotar asserts that, when Angelina came out of the toilet, Matyash hit her and she fell, hitting her head. He says that he tried to stop Matyash and hit him, with Matyash hitting him back, after which he walked out. He assumes that it was during the scuffle with Matyash that he lost his cap. Chebotar asserts that he went off to the bar alone and that Matyash arrived 20-25 minutes later, having changed his clothes. He claimed to have fallen and to have needed to go back to change. According to Chebotar, Matyash had earlier borrowed some screwdrivers from him, and he suddenly pulled them out of his pocket and gave them to Chebotar.
In October 2019, two brothers – Armen Muntyan and Rustam Churar - gave testimony that contradicted the prosecution’s version and raised serious doubts about the ‘investigators’’ wish to find the real killer. The brothers’ testimony about that evening and about the behaviour or both Chebotar and Matyash differed radically from that given by other witnesses, who are all either Matyash’s relatives or friends. According to Tetiana Gerasimova from the Centre for Legal Monitoring, who has followed the trial, details of the brothers’ testimony can only be made public after all witnesses have testified, but the testimony “places the prosecution’s version in serious doubt”. In court, the brothers testified that they had been shouted at by the police who demanded that they say that Chebotar had killed the little girl and that the cap was his. They defended Chebotar then and in court, saying that they did not believe he was guilty and presenting a far from idyllic picture of Angelina’s family life (more details here).