A woman lights a candle at a memorial to journalist Pavel Sheremet on the site where Sheremet's car exploded in Kyiv, Ukraine, on July 20, 2020. (AFP/Sergei Supinsky)

Doubts over investigation plague Pavel Sheremet trial as Ukraine journalists cite continued fear

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The trial of three people charged for the 2016 killing of Pavel Sheremet is set to begin before year’s end, but friends and colleagues of the journalist wonder if the right people are facing justice.

It has been more than four years and two months since a powerful car bomb killed journalist Pavel Sheremet in Kyiv, Ukraine, on July 20, 2016, in what his family, friends, and colleagues believe was an assassination meant to send a message.

But who ordered the journalist’s murder and what that message was supposed to be are two of the biggest unanswered questions hanging over the case—even as three suspects charged with committing the crime are set to go on trial before the end of the year.

Sheremet, a 44-year-old Belarusian by birth, lived and worked in his native country as well as in Russia, where he became a naturalized citizen, before settling in Ukraine. In Kyiv, he wrote for the independent news outlet Ukrainska Pravda and hosted a show on independent broadcaster Radio Vesti. A 1998 recipient of CPJ’s International Press Freedom Award, he had a broad network of friends who adored his wit and charm and respected his work as an investigative reporter, TV anchor, political commentator, author, and mentor.

No topic was off limits for Sheremet, and he was critical of authorities in each of those former Soviet states, where he mixed with powerful and sometimes controversial political figures. Because of his reporting and commentary, he had long been the target of harassment and threats, his family, friends, and colleagues told CPJ in a 2017 investigation.

Aside from who ordered his murder and the motive behind it, as the court date approaches, other big questions surround the suspects themselves, such as, are the right people facing justice?

The suspects include Andriy Antonenko, a war veteran and musician known by the stage name “Riffmaster,” and Yulia Kuzmenko, a doctor and volunteer military medic, who are accused of planting and triggering the car bomb. Yana Duhar, a volunteer military medic, is accused of helping them plan the killing.

Yesterday, at a court hearing in Kyiv, all three pleaded not guilty after a judge read the charges. Previously, the three denied the charges and said that by announcing their names during a high-profile, nationally televised event last year, authorities presented them as guilty before they were given a fair trial.

All have said they were not in Kyiv at the time of Sheremet’s death, but their alibis are flimsy. However, so is the evidence against them. 

Antonenko, Kuzmenko, and Duhar are members of a respected community of volunteers who serve in various capacities in the fight against Russia and its separatist proxies in Ukraine’s war-torn east. That has provoked the ire of some segments of the Ukrainian public, including veterans’ groups and nationalist organizations, who have on several occasions rallied in Kyiv in support of the suspects since their arrest in December. 

And even some of Sheremet’s own friends and colleagues doubt the official suspects’ involvement and the evidence upon which authorities have built their case.

“Personally, I’m not confident that they [have the right people],” Sevgil Musayeva, the Ukrainska Pravda editor-in-chief and one of Sheremet’s closest friends, told CPJ. Like many, she said she found it difficult to believe that three individuals involved in defending Ukraine from Russian aggression could be involved.

The Ukrainian veteran and volunteer community is held in high esteem by the public and are generally viewed as heroes and often seen as being above scrutiny.

In this charged environment, with so much doubt, the trial is expected to be long and tense.

Previously set to convene this month, its start now depends on when the court is able to appoint replacements for two jurors who were dismissed on September 4 due to conflicts of interest, the Interfax-Ukraine news agency reported.

When it finally does, all eyes will be on the evidence compiled by investigators and presented by the prosecution. Specifically, many observers will be looking to see if authorities have been able to strengthen their case since their “breakthrough” press conference in December that was attended by President Volodymyr Zelensky, as well as the prosecutor general at the time, and other top law enforcement officials. 

First Deputy Chief of the National Police Yevhen Koval presents the results of an investigation into the killing of journalist Pavel Sheremet during a press conference in Kyiv, Ukraine, on December 12, 2019. (Reuters/Valentyn Ogirenko)

The man leading the press conference was Arsen Avakov, Ukraine’s powerful and controversial interior minister, who has overseen the Sheremet case from the beginning. Avakov presented a series of slick slides showing lines connecting the suspects and carefully selected snippets of phone recordings said to show them planning the bombing. 

Authorities also presented facial and gait analysis based on security camera footage from experts at the Kyiv Scientific Research Institute of Forensic Expertise and British forensic expert Ivan Birch, which they argued proved Antonenko, Kuzmenko, and Duhar carried out the killing.

But critics of the investigation say there was no “smoking gun” to conclusively tie them to Sheremet’s killing. Authorities also have not identified an initiator or “customer,” as investigators say, of the murder.

Artem Shevchenko, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Internal Affairs of Ukraine and the National Police, defended the investigation. In a statement emailed to CPJ, he said, “The evidence collected by police investigators, in its aggregate, was sufficiently convincing for the prosecutor’s office, as the procedural head of the investigation, to take the case to court.”

Ukrainian journalists skeptical of government’s case

Anna Babinets, the editor-in-chief of the independent Ukrainian investigative journalism outfit Slidstvo.info who has followed the Sheremet case from the moment she learned of his death, called the press conference a well-produced “show” and said she believes the evidence against the suspects is thin. 

“Avakov and other police officials said, ‘This is only a small part of the evidence we have and we will show you more [soon],’ Babinets told CPJ, recalling the press conference. “Nine months later they are going to trial and we don’t see more evidence.”

“I can’t say [the suspects] are the wrong people but I look at all the evidence that police presented and it doesn’t seem that strong,” Babinets said.

Untrusting of authorities’ ability to conduct a proper investigation from day one, Babinets launched her own, parallel probe, in July 2016, in collaboration with journalists from the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP). 

Their findings were presented a year later in the documentary film “Killing Pavel,” which showed several missteps made on the part of investigators and uncovered an alleged link to the Ukrainian security services that had not been explored previously. 

The findings were a shock to many and served to undermine public trust in the official investigation, planting the seed of doubt that persists today.

“Investigating such complex cases is impossible [to do] without errors,” Shevchenko said in the emailed statement. “Especially when the investigation has been going on for more than [four] years.”

Police later said they followed the lead uncovered by Babinets and her colleagues but found it to be a dead end. Babinets and other reporters said they do not believe the lead was thoroughly considered.

On September 22, 2020, another lead apparently ignored by police was discovered by the independent Ukrainian news outlet Zaborona. In a twopart investigation, the outlet found that a woman had gone to police in August 2016 to file a report about a man she knew, Maksym Zotov, whom she alleged had confessed to her about killing Sheremet.

Zaborona published the police report, which was later confirmed by Shevchenko to be authentic. However, the Interior Ministry spokesperson said police followed up with the woman’s husband, who said the woman and Zotov had been engaged in a personal disagreement, and dropped the lead.

Ekaterina Sergatskova, Zaborona’s co-founder and editor-in-chief, told CPJ that her outlet’s discovery was merely one of “many shortcomings” in the official investigation.

Another issue keeping Sheremet’s friends and colleagues up at night is the motive for the crime. While they say it remains unclear, investigators–citing a tapped phone conversation of the suspects that did not mention Sheremet by name–argue that it was meant to further destabilize the socio-political situation in Ukraine.

In other words, the killing was less about Sheremet personally and more about exploiting his public recognition to stir the passions of Ukrainian “patriots” who had tired of the simmering war in the country’s eastern regions, authorities claimed at the December press conference.

“It was the middle of summer. It wasn’t the high political season. So it’s very hard to find evidence to support this theory,” Ukrainska Pravda’s Musayeva said. “We still have many questions.”

Chill among journalists remains amid impunity for murder

The fiery blast that killed Sheremet that morning in July 2016 rocked central Kyiv for only a second, but it has left a lasting impact on a fragile, war-stricken nation. And in the country’s journalist community, in particular, it triggered a chill that has not warmed since.

“For four years now, many [journalists] do not feel safe, and the number of attacks on journalists has increased,” Sergatskova said. “There is no assurance that attacks against journalists will be properly investigated.”

For many Ukrainian journalists, the Sheremet case reminded them of the murder of Georgy Gongadze, the former Ukrainska Pravda editor whose headless body was discovered outside Kyiv 20 years ago. A thorn in the side of authorities who he investigated, his loved ones and colleagues believed he was killed because of his work. 

While the men who carried out Gongadze’s gruesome murder have been caught and convicted for their role in the crime, the masterminds have never been brought to justice. 

“We know that when there is such impunity, murders of journalists can happen again,” Musayeva said. “That’s why it’s important for Ukraine now to find the people who killed Pavel and also the people who ordered [him to be killed].”

President Zelensky has made solving Sheremet’s murder one of his top priorities. Shevchenko told CPJ, “At the moment, the investigation is confident that the persons accused of this crime will be brought to justice.”

As long as whoever ordered it remains free, Musayeva said, Ukraine’s journalists will continue to live and work in fear. 

She added: “We can’t feel safe until we understand that all people involved in killing Pavel are imprisoned.”