Belarusian journalist Pavel Sheremet’s reporting had challenged authorities from Minsk to Moscow and Kyiv.
In a murder that shocked the world, he was killed by a car bomb in the Ukrainian capital in July 2016.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko called for law enforcement to find and punish those behind the attack, but authorities have so far been unable to solve the case.
For over nine months, reporters from OCCRP and Slidstvo.Info conducted their own investigation, both into the murder and into the police probe -- and recorded every step of the way. “Killing Pavel” is the result of these efforts.
In exclusive footage and interviews, the film reveals crucial information about the night and morning of the killing that never found its way into the official investigation -- and asks why.
Ukraine has long struggled to move towards European values and norms -- for many this was the very reason for the beginning of the 100-day Euromaidan Revolution that drove President Viktor Yanukovych from power on Feb. 22, 2014.
European values and norms include things like freedom of the press, as well as the professionalism and independence of the work of law enforcement bodies. The documentary demonstrates that in today’s Ukraine, sadly, even after a revolution that cost the lives of 100 people, Ukraine still falls far short of these benchmarks.
The 50-minute-long documentary, entitled “Killing Pavel,” featuring an investigation by four Ukrainian journalists from the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project, a Kyiv Post partner, and the investigative team Slidstvo.info, reveals a lot of new information about the killing. It lays bare the shortcomings of the investigators and prosecutors supposed to find those responsible for this horrific crime. And it raises significant questions about the actions, or competency, of Ukrainian law enforcement, at a minimum.
Full disclosure: I didn’t know Sheremet well, but we had several mutual friends. I met him only once. He was a charming man, intelligent, highly articulate, funny and warm. I took flowers to the site where he was killed, and I attended his memorial service in Kyiv. More disclosure, I have also met Khatia Dekanoidze, the former head of the National Police of Ukraine, who features in the documentary. To my knowledge, Dekanoidze is a hardworking and competent person, she won her job on merit, was dedicated to applying her experience in her native Georgia to helping Ukraine, and did so tirelessly. The lights in her office were often burning into the early hours of the morning. For those reasons, the holes in the official investigation that have been highlighted in her interviews for the “Killing Pavel” documentary are, to say the least, surprising.
Failures of the official investigation
It is known that the bomb that killed Sheremet was planted under his car at around 2:30 a.m., and that this act was carried out by a two-person team, a man and a woman. The CCTV footage previously released related to this case was grainy, and it was impossible to get positive identification of either the main suspects or any witnesses to the act that lead to Sheremets’s death a few hours later.
It would be expected that, in a murder case, every possible lead and angle would be followed. However we learn from this new report that technologies that could have been used to get to the facts were simply not applied.
In addition, key witnesses were ignored, or not identified. At the precise moment that the bomb was being planted a taxi cab dropped off a fare meters away from Pavel’s cherry red Subaru Crossover. The cab driver was tracked down by the investigative journalists, and it is clear from his statement that he was never interviewed by the police. He only learned that he was a possible witness to the crime when he was contacted for the documentary.
CCTV footage from the area around Sheremet’s home reveals the presence of two vehicles of interest on the street in question in the hours before the bomb was planted -- a white Mercedes SUV and a gray Skoda. These two vehicles arrived at the same time, 11:30 p.m., the drivers of the vehicles interacted with each other, and they left the scene close to four hours later, not long after the bomb had been planted. All of this occurred a short distance from where they waited in their parked cars. Dekanoidze said that, to the best of her knowledge, all vehicles in the area and showing up on the CCTV tapes obtained by the authorities had been traced. This is obviously not true, because the owner and driver of the gray Skoda were only tracked down as a result of forensic examination of the footage carried out for the documentary by a member of the Bellingcat organization.
It is inconceivable that a murder investigation could overlook something as important as two vehicles that were in the location where the bomb was planted, at the time that the bomb was planted. The fact that these vehicles were occupied during this period suggests that the occupants are either; a) vital witnesses, or, b) accomplices to the crime.
As a result of weeks of work done by Bellingcat, the registration number of the Skoda was ascertained, (the Mercedes SUV was parked a little further down the street, and neither the vehicle nor the driver have been identified). Natalya Zaretska, the owner of the gray Skoda, registration AA 2551 MO, was contacted by the investigative journalists. It is clear from the outset of the communication between journalist Dmitro Gnap and Zaretska that she was not keen to discuss this topic, her answers were evasive, and had she been unaware of any potential wrong-doing related to the vehicle registered in her name there would have been no need for any evasiveness when contacted either by telephone or in person.
Identifying the gray Skoda and its registered owner then leads to another vital fact -- who was using that vehicle on that night. It turned out to be a man called Ihor Andriivych Ustimenko. When contacted and interviewed by journalists, Ustimenko claimed to have seen nothing on the night in question. The journalists then managed to find out, through an anonymous source, that Ustimenko had joined Ukraine’s SBU security service in 2014. This was now confirmed (in a tweet and Facebook post intended to rubbish the documentary, judging by the tone) by a spokesperson from the SBU -- apparently Ustimenko was in the service of the SBU until late April 2014.
Trail of bad excuses
The fact that the SBU’s spokesperson, Olena Gitlyanska, confirmed that Ustimenko had been a member of the SBU is interesting -- it is a clear attempt to distance the SBU from this matter, but in fact it just raises more questions.
Are we to believe a former SBU officer was sitting on a street while a bomb was being planted, and saw nothing suspicious?
Are we to believe a former SBU agent knew, with absolute certainty, that he was in the vicinity when a serious crime was being committed, and he did not voluntarily present himself to the authorities to give testimony?
Any person who had ever had any position in law enforcement anywhere in the world would have done the exact opposite.
Are we to believe a former SBU agent, with knowledge of their potential value as another witness in a murder case, would refuse, as Ustimenko did in this documentary, to identify the other person who was with him at the exact time the bomb was planted, the white Mercedes SUV driver.
No, this is not normal. This is not believable.
Any honest law enforcement professional would immediately come forward to help their colleagues. A person involved in law enforcement, past or present, who refuses to present themselves to give testimony or identify other possible witnesses, for any reason, is obstructing an investigation, and obstructing justice. The fact that Ustinenko is no longer a serving member of the SBU (or so the agency says) absolves him of none of his ethical or legal obligations to provide testimony. A court can decide whether his actions, or inaction, of the last ten months amounts to obstructing justice.
Ustimenko must be compelled, immediately, to identify the driver of the white Mercedes, and also to provide an alibi for his claim that he was in that area at that time to provide private security services for a family. At present, we only have his word that this was why he was there, and on the face of it his word seems to be worth very little.
More overlooked details
And more holes in the official investigation were highlighted by this documentary. Another possible witness was seen on CCTV on an adjacent street at the time the bomb was planted. The only footage obtained by the authorities showed him from behind only, carrying a distinctive backpack with parallel luminescent stripes. Dekanoidze said that she was not aware of footage showing his face, but the documentary makers found such footage. Dekanoidze then stated that it would not have been appropriate to release an image of a potential witness to such a crime to the public. My previously stated respect for Dekanoidze notwithstanding, she is completely wrong, because that’s precisely what would have happened in a competent investigation.
“Police are appealing for information to identify this man, a potential witness to a murder” is not an uncommon statement.
The authorities also failed to find all CCTV footage of the likely perpetrators of this crime, but the journalists and investigators did, and one revealing piece of color CCTV footage showed that the man in question was wearing a hoodie with a distinctive patch on the back. It appears from analyzing footage of the moments before the bomb exploded that a man of similar build and wearing a hoodie with a similar patch on the back was back on the same street as Sheremet left his home, for the very last time, on July 20, 2016.
Perhaps most damning of all, the makers of the documentary asked for comment on the new information from President Petro Poroshenko -- and his office did not respond. The SBU and the Prosecutor Generals’ office both declined to give interviews; and Interior Minister Arsen Avakov did not respond to a request for comment either.
A prominent journalist was murdered in broad daylight, and failing to bring the perpetrators to justice, whoever they are, is unacceptable. Thanks to the makers of the “Killing Pavel” documentary, the authorities now have more information to work with.
And turning a blind eye, or further obstruction in this case, is also unacceptable.