A Ukrainian official alleges that the country’s security services may have been involved in the murder of journalist Pavel Sheremet.
Pavel Sheremet, an internationally renowned journalist who was born in Belarus, was murdered by a car bomb in Kyiv on 20 July 2016. Ironically, he had taken refuge in Ukraine because he was afraid for his life having been an outspoken critic of Belarus’ President Alexander Lukashenko and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Ukraine’s Interior Ministry swiftly suggested that Russian special services might be involved. However, the investigation stalled in December when Ukraine’s Interior Minister Arsen Avakov gave a press briefing. Avakov, who was accompanied by the new Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and prosecutor Ruslan Ryaboshapka, named three people as the killers. Their names were met with incredulity.
The people named were all volunteers supporting Ukraine’s resistance to Russia’s invasion of the Donbas area of eastern Ukraine: Yulia Kuzmenko, a doctor; Yana Dugar, a nurse; and Andrii Antonenko, a rock musician-turned-soldier.
There are several questions over the proceedings. Halya Coynash, a Ukrainian human rights journalist, notes that the prosecution “failed to provide convincing evidence and violated the presumption of innocence”.
The case against the suspects seems implausible. The alleged ring-leader Antonenko supposedly organised the assassination to “destabilise” Ukraine. He had, they argued, been captivated by “ultra-nationalist ideals” and that Sheremet was chosen as the victim because of his international profile.
Antonenko’s friends found the claim that he was an ultra-nationalist laughable, while Antonenko himself pointed out that he was half-Jewish and grew up in a Jewish district. The evidence against him includes a Facebook post of an image depicting Hitler as Santa Claus. But his Facebook page also ridiculed Russian portrayals of Ukrainians as Nazis. He also reposted material condemning racism.
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There was also apparently forensic evidence possibly linking the suspects to the killings. Video footage of the supposed killer showed a man who resembled Antonenko.
A Ukrainian journalism site, slidstvo.info, also investigated the case in collaboration with the Organised Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP), uncovering material missed by the prosecution. Crucially, a current or former employee of the Ukrainian Security Service, the SBU, had been present at the scene of the murder the day before it happened. According to Anna Babinets, editor of slidstvo.info and the OCCRP’s Ukrainian section, “the prosecution case is very ambiguous and contradictory”.
Unfortunately, the defence is also flawed. Kuzmenko’s alibi changed during the hearings. Antonenko’s claim that he always wore his beard differently to the killer was inaccurate. The innocence or guilt of the suspects is unproven. But, what is certain, is that the supposed motives of the killers don’t stand up.
The Interior Ministry and the Intelligence Services
Who ordered the murder of Sheremet and why is still uncertain. But, there is evidence that one of the Interior Minister Avakov’s staff blames the SBU for the murder.
This month, text messages emerged which had been sent by an Interior Ministry spokesman suggesting that the SBU killed Sheremet. The recipient of the text messages – a former press secretary for Ukrainian volunteer military forces – accused Avakov and his Interior Ministry officials of using the case to target the SBU and leaking information to a Ukrainian politician, Andrii Portnov.
So what does all this mean?
A Russian journalist, Kseniya Kirillova (who has seen two of her colleagues killed and was named as an enemy of the state on Russian national television) dismisses the idea that the SBU killed Sheremet as “absurd”. Kirrilova points out that Portnov is a former aide to Viktor Yanukovych – the disgraced leader of Ukraine who fled to Russia during the uprising in 2014 – and therefore the information on the SBU is suspect.
Another journalist out of favour with the Russian Government, Roman Dobrokhotov, who helped expose the would-be assassins of Sergei Skripal in Salisbury last year, has talked to former SBU investigators and journalists about the prosecution.
“Most of the suspects are probably guilty but their motives are unclear,” he told Byline Times. “The investigation is unprecedentedly secretive so there is little trust in the process.”
Anna Babinets, of the OCCRP, agrees. “The police did not provide enough evidence that the suspects were guilty when they arrested them in December,” she told Byline Times. “They have not presented any more evidence during the two months they have been held. This is unprofessional and confidence that they will uncover who really killed Sheremet is fading.”
It seems unlikely that the SBU would assassinate Sheremet, a foe of Putin and a friend of Ukraine. He might simply have been murdered because of a personal grudge. There is, of course, one obvious potential culprit who would want to destabilise the country. The Kremlin has a track record of recruiting local assets to commit assassinations in Kyiv and is good at covering its tracks.
However, at the moment, Sheremet’s murder remains, like Winston Churchill’s famous description of Russia itself, “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma”.