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Crucial testimony confirms doubts about child murder that sparked anti-Roma riots in Ukraine

01.12.2021   
Halya Coynash
Mykhailo Chebotar testifying on 25 November 2021 Photo Anna Farifonova, Graty

The trial is coming to an end in the Odesa oblast of Mykhailo Chebotar who is accused of murdering an 8-year-old girl in August 2016.  His arrest prompted shocking anti-Roma riots which were reported far beyond Ukraine.  Five years on, the case no longer makes the headlines, but it continues to cause concern due in in part to crucial questions that were essentially never asked, despite testimony in Chebotar’s favour and his apparent alibi.    

On 25 November, Chebotar finally gave testimony himself before the Prymorsky Court in Odesa, with this also enabling publication of the account given earlier in court by two brothers which largely backs his version of events.   

Angelina’s body was found at around 7a.m. on 27 August 2016, on some unoccupied land behind where she had lived, with her mother, stepfather and half-brother. Her mother is supposed to have discovered that Angelina was missing when she arrived back from her job at a local bar at 3 a.m., but the police were not informed before morning.   

Chebotar knew the family, sometimes looked after the children and had been with the stepfather, Oleksandr Matiash at a birthday celebration the previous evening and then at the bar where the mother, Kateryna worked.  His cap was found in the family’s home after Angelina’s body was found, and a tracker dog led the police to the then 21-year-old Chebotar’s home.   

Chebotar has lived in the area all his life and was working locally, however his Roma origin was used as pretext for appalling anti-Roma riots which the police did nothing to prevent and which the local authorities effectively abetted.

While the cap and the apparent murder weapon (a screwdriver), as well as some DNA traces, could certainly be seen as incriminating, there were a number of problems with all aspects of the case against him.  These have been repeatedly highlighted by, among others, Chebotar’s lawyer Andriy Leshchenko and Tetyana Gerasimova, a journalist and head of the Centre for Legal Monitoring. The concerns also prompted a television team from TV Ukraina to ‘carry out their own investigation’.  In their film, they asserted that the DNA traces that had never been identified appeared to match Matiash’ DNA.  It is disturbing that two applications from the defence to have the stepfather also take a DNA test, given the unidentified traces, were opposed by the prosecutor and rejected by the court.

The journalists were able to speak with Chebotar, who has been in detention since 27 August 2016, and the account he gave then was essentially that presented in court on 25 November.  He described his movements the following day from when he arrived back in Loshchynivka (from his work in the city of Izmail). He had gone, with Oleksandr Matiash, to the home of the latter’s brother Yukhim to celebrate Yukhim’s girlfriend’s birthday.   Chebotar recounts that he and Matiash went outside to smoke at around 00.15 and Matiash tried to ring his wife at the Fortuna bar.  She didn’t answer, and Matiash got wound up and suggested that he and Chebotar go to the bar.  In fact, there was quite a group who went, with this including Matiash’ sister, Lyudmila, a female friend of hers and two brothers who are friends of Chebotar – Rustam Churar and Armen Muntian. Matiash and Chebotar were behind the others, and Matiash said that he wanted to drop in home and check that Angelina and her 5-year-old brother were asleep. 

According to Chebotar, they went in to the house together, where Matiash found that while his son was asleep, Angelina was not in her room.  He got angry, and when she appeared, having simply gone outside to the toilet, he hit her around the head and she fell.  Chebotar lifted the little girl up and pushed Matiash who then shoved him.  Chebotar says that at this point he turned around and left since “I didn’t want to fight in front of the child”.  He assumes that it was then that he lost his cap.  

He arrived at the bar at 1 a.m. and was there, inside or outside, with others from then on. Matiash turned up 20-25 minutes later, wearing other clothes. Most worryingly, Chebotar says that Matiash went into the bar, looking angry, and went up to his wife and told her something, with his arms waving about.  It was clear, he says, that they were quarrelling.  About 15 minutes later, Matiash called Chebotar over to the corner of the bar.  He got out a screwdriver and said that he’d borrowed it from Chebotar and had forgotten to return it.  Chebotar says that he simply took it and put it in his pocket.  It was dark in the corner and he would not have noticed what state the screwdriver was in.  Chebotar then returned to the group, and says he headed off home at 2 a.m.  He told the court that he is convinced that Matiash killed the little girl. 

Chebotar has consistently denied any involvement in the crime and said on the TV program that it was unthinkable that he would kill a child.  That does not, of course, guarantee that he is telling the truth, however there are a number of circumstances that back his version.

One of the many disturbing aspects of this case is the fact that no other version was ever considered from the outset.  Within an hour or so of the discovery of Angelina’s body, four individuals who were not in uniform and did not show any ID turned up at his home.  One of them dragged him out of bed and forced him, face down, on the floor, while another man kicked him.  The other two began rummaging in the room, looking for something.  He was then handcuffed and taken to the village council building where they proceeded to beat him around the head, and ears.  One of them put a glove on, pulled down the young man’s trousers and began squeezing his genitals.  They kept demanding that he ‘confess’, and he kept asking what he was supposed to confess to.  He says that when they finally told him, and said that they had found the screwdriver at his place, he told them that he had received it from Matiash, but they ignored him.  One of the men, named as an investigator, threatened that he would be sent to fight in Donbas, while another made insulting comments about, as he put it, “you Gypsies” and said that “you should be shot”.

Chebotar says that he saw the two brothers, Rustam Churar and Armen Muntian, brought into the police station.  They were told that he had killed a child and that they had to identify his cap.  They said that he could not have killed anybody, that he had been with them and others all evening.  It seems that they too were beaten.

As reported, the European Court of Human Rights has registered the defence’s application on Chebotar’s behalf, with the violations alleged including both torture and discrimination.

There has been resistance from the prosecutor, both to examining repeated complaints over the torture Chebotar says he was subjected to, and to considering other versions regarding the actual crime.

Alibi

Two separate forensic examinations found that the crime had been committed between 22.00 and 01.25.  If this was the case, then Chebotar has a totally unbreakable alibi.

Instead of at least considering other possible suspects, the prosecutor Svitlana Kolohreva has concentrated on trying to stretch out the possible period by putting the forensic scientists under huge pressure.  The first expert, Oleh Halev did, under such a grilling, agree to extend the period, but only until 02.00.  This was when Chebotar had only just left the bar, and clearly too early.  The prosecution is claiming that the crime was committed between 2.30 and 3.00, despite the forensic assessments.

Witnesses

In October 2019, the two brothers Muntian and Churar gave testimony that contradicted the prosecution’s version and raised serious doubts about the ‘investigators’’ wish to find the real killer.  Some of the testimony can only now be revealed.  In court, they spoke of having 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, and said that Angelina’s stepfather had beaten her and that she always had bruise marks on her from beatings.  They also alleged that the little girl’s mother had not protected her and that, on the contrary, she often complained that she was sick of her disobedient daughter. Chebotar has been in detention since 27 August 2016, so there is no way that such testimony was agreed in advance with him.

There was also critical, and much belated, evidence during the hearing on 18 May 2021, which would back a time of the crime fully in keeping with the two forensic assessments, but which would exonerate Chebotar.  Most worryingly, the testimony was first given immediately after Angelina’s body was discovered, but was ignored. 

It is solely thanks to the defence’s perseverance that the court finally learned of this testimony from two sisters - Valentina Kazanzhi and Veronika Dobreva   Kazanzhi explained by video link,  on 18 May 2021, that she, her sister and two female friends were in the Fortuna Bar on the relevant evening (26-27 August 2016).  Between 12.30 and 1 a.m., they were outside, smoking.  They were standing near two electricity posts which are not far from Angelina’s home, and from the land behind the home where the little girl’s body was found.  As soon as they came out, they heard screams from that direction. 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 2016.  Chebotar has a watertight alibi for that time, Matiash has none.

DNA / biological traces

Chebotar’s account, including the fact that he could not see what condition the screwdriver was in, would explain how there could have been traces of blood on his jacket, and, probably, the other scant physical evidence.  There is extraordinarily little DNA despite this allegedly having been a sexual crime carried out in haste and in the dark. Leshchenko has confirmed that there was no trace of Chebotar’s semen on the little girl herself, or on her clothes. 

There has also been speculation that some of the evidence that would seem to incriminate Chebotar could have been faked.  A hand swab taken from Chebotar, for example, contained only Angelina’s DNA, and not his own.  A different forensic institute did not find Chebotar’s DNA in the samples taken from under the victim’s fingernails (of her right hand). 

Two expert assessments found biological traces of a ‘third, unidentified individual’, yet the defence’s two applications (in November 2019 and in April 2020) for Angelina’s stepfather to undergo a DNA test were rejected.  No other attempts to identify this individual would appear to have been made.

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