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Journalists to Continue Investigation Into Murder of Ukraine’s High-Profile Reporter
14 May, 2017
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What You Need To Know:

✅ Ten months have passed since Pavel Shermet, a ‘Ukrainska Pravda’ journalist, was murdered in downtown Kyiv. After the official investigation showed no progress, Hromadske’s “Slidstvo.Info” together with the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) decided to conduct an investigation of their own;

✅ In the groundbreaking independent investigation, ‘Killing Pavel’, journalists were able to identify possible witnesses—overlooked by the official investigation—in particular a man by the name of Ihor Ustimenko, who was at some point working for Ukraine’s Security Service (SBU);

✅ Following the release of the film, the filmmakers were summoned by Ukraine’s Minister of Internal Affairs, and later met with the National Police;

“We don't know exactly if it's incompetence or maybe a strong political will for blocking the official investigation,”—Dmytro Gnap, Author of ‘Killing Pavel’;

“The killing of journalists here in Ukraine is a big challenge for our media community and we will try to find these guys who did it to protect our profession and our right to our profession,”—Dmytro Gnap.

Ten months have passed since Pavel Shermet, a ‘Ukrainska Pravda’ journalist, was murdered in downtown Kyiv on his way to work. Ukraine’s President Poroshenko immediately called upon law enforcement agencies to investigate the crime, yet the official investigation made no progress. Subsequently, independent journalists at Hromadske’s “Slidstvo.Info” together with the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) decided to conduct an investigation of their own.

In the groundbreaking independent investigation, ‘Killing Pavel’, journalists were able to identify possible witnesses—overlooked by the official investigation— from secret cameras outside Sheremet’s home. In particular, a grey Skoda parked outside the victim’s house the evening before the murder raised even more suspicion.

With the help of specialists at Bellingcat, an investigative search network, journalists were able to reveal the license plate and driver of the mystery vehicle. Ihor Ustimenko, a member of Ukraine’s Security Service (SBU) until 2014, was loitering outside of Sheremet’s home, while explosives were being planted a few meters away. Ustimenko refused to comment on his involvement with the Security Service and refused to acknowledge why he was at the crime scene.

The SBU and the Prosecutor’s office declined talking to reporters during the investigation. However, after the film was released, Ukraine’s Minister of Internal Affairs summoned the filmmakers and Ustimenko to a special meeting. Hromadske sat down with the filmmakers to find out what happened next.

“We didn't get any official documents or calls saying help us, come to us,” explains Anna Babinets, one of the film’s authors. “After that, we were invited to the National Police and we had one meeting with them.” She says that the filmmakers will think about cooperating with the police on the continued investigation.

The reaction of Ukraine’s authorities to this special investigation questions whether the filmmakers revealed incompetence or wrongdoing. Dmytro Gnap, another of the film's authors says it is still too soon to tell: “We don't know exactly if it's incompetence or maybe a strong political will for blocking the official investigation.”

Ihor Ustimenko was revealed to be a key figure in this investigation, yet the team of journalists has not been able to confirm whether he does still work for the Security Service. However, Babinets points out that ”in every country, people who worked for some security structure, when they are fired they continue to work within this structure.”

The film does not speculate any motive for Pavel’s murder, and some details have been left out due to inconclusive evidence. “We have not enough information for making one specific conclusion about one specific motive for this murder,” says Gnap. Babinets explains that during the investigation, her team discovered that some video footage from secret cameras had been deleted by the SBU.

The filmmakers say they will continue the investigation because they have data awaiting verification and to find the names of those responsible for organizing and carrying out the crime. “The killing of journalists here in Ukraine is a big challenge for our media community and we will try to find these guys who did it to protect our profession and our right to our profession,” concludes Gnap.

Hromadske spoke to Anna Babinets and Dmytro Gnap, Authors of “Killing Pavel”, on May 12th, 2017 in Kyiv.

The latest development, right after the movie, we are asking about details, you had the chance to talk to some of the officials. What was the reaction of the Ukrainian government?

Anna Babinets: The next day the Minister of the Interior Affairs announced that he invited journalists for talking and questioning but it was only an announcement. He didn't do it. We didn't get any official documents or calls saying help us, come to us. After that we were invited to the National Police and we had one meeting today, with them.

And how did it go?

Anna Babinets: It was interesting, we talked for around an hour or more and now we are thinking about and negotiating the possibility of our cooperation.

Do you feel like the authorities are reacting as though you've uncovered wrongdoing on their part or are they reacting more as though they're embarrassed that you've uncovered incompetence on their part. What's the feeling you get from them?

Dmytro Gnap: Well, mostly that's our conclusion. We had the worst conclusions that maybe it could be some kind of incompetence or maybe it's some kind of wrong motivation, because someone from the top of Ukrainian power could be linked to this, with this crime. We don't know exactly if it's incompetence or maybe a strong political will for blocking the official investigation. We didn't know exactly. When we finally start to meet with the national police or the head of the national police we will see how we will cooperate with them.

The key figure of the investigation was Ustimenko, who worked for the Ukrainian Security Service and this was confirmed by the Press Service of the Ukrainian Security Service. They say that he was either fired or he left the service in 2014. But really, besides what we know from the film, how much do we know about him and can we really confirm that he wasn't there in 2014?

Anna Babinets: According to information we published and we had he was a worker for the Security Service in 2014. We don't know if he works for them now. When we were working on the documentary we had one more source who told us that Ihor Ustimenko was fired from the Security Service in October 2014. But it was only information from one source, we couldn't confirm it, and so according to international standards of journalism we couldn't use it because it was only from one source. And now we know from the Security Service that he was fired in April 2014. So now we have two sets of information and no documents about it. So I don't know what is true. And as we know, it’s not a big problem for the Security Service to make some documents because it is an untransparent structure and they could produce all the documents about everything in one night.

His behaviour in the interview with you is extremely bizarre. He doesn't look like a professional agent who knows what he's doing or is prepared for this meeting. And yet he knew that you were coming to meet him. How can you explain the way he reacts?

Dmytro Gnap: It could be a way of pretending that he is not an official service man, or member of the secret service. A lot of guys from the secret service can pretend very well and create the image that he is a stupid guy who knows nothing, while at the same time trying to take information from you, what do you know about him, what do you know about the situation. So it could be a way of pretending that he is a stupid guy who isn't linked to the crime, at the same time trying to provide his work like a guy from the secret service.

And is it the case, that even if he was no longer working for the SBU at the time of the events, can we conclude from the fact that he knew what was going on that the SBU must have definitely known what was going on? Or can we not be sure of that?

Anna Babinets: We don't know, because as we know in every country people who worked for some security structure, when they are fired they pretty often continue to work within this structure. And as you may know from the documentary, the documents we got from our source about this guy Ihor Ustimenko, we know from this that he also has a gun, 4-17R. This gun is used in our security structure. Unfortunately journalists don't have access to the gun registry, it's absolutely closed and only available to the police. But if he still has this gun, it creates more questions. Maybe somebody who could get access to this registry can help us to understand why he has this gun, because he should have some permission for using this gun and this could appear in the registry. There are a lot of questions after the documentary, too.

One thing I wanted to ask which is not in the film, and maybe you don't want to speculate, but is there anything that Pavel Sheremet specifically was working on in the time leading up to his death that people suspect could create a specific motive why someone in particular or some particular group might have wanted to kill him?

Dmytro Gnap: That is one of the more serious questions of this case and we have some thoughts on this, some versions but we have not enough information for making one specific conclusion about one specific motive for this murder. We see that some guys from the security services could be linked to this crime but these guys have been ruled by Ukrainian politicians or Russian politicians, we don't know exactly. But we see the business version of this crime, or maybe the ordinary family version, that are in the work of the official criminal investigation, these versions are not serious from our point of view.

The explanations that don't involve politics in some way don't seem to you to be credible.

Dmytro Gnap: Yeah, should be.

Your colleague has managed to call Ihor Ustimenko, so more or less he might be in the country?

Anna Babinets: You mean after the documentary? Yes, Olena called Ihor and it was the same as it was during our meeting. He asked who are you, who are you, and introduced herself, saying I'm a journalist, I'm a journalist, I want to ask you if maybe you finally remembered that you worked for the SBU and he told her ask someone else about this.

There was some other information, of course you can't put everything in the documentary, you have to choose, but there was some information about the cameras and information which had been deleted by the SBU from the cameras which were at the place of the murder. What can you say about that?

Dmytro Gnap: We have some details that couldn't be included in the film about some strange behaviour by the security services of the Ukrainian SBU. Anna knows more about the deleting of videos from CCTV near Pavel's house.

Anna Babinets: It was on the building and we came there asking about videos and the guy who worked there with the video cameras and the CCTV and TV set told us that we can try to view it, we tried for a long time, but he told us that recently some guys from the SBU came and tried to record this information and they couldn't and they took away the server or hard disk. In a couple days they gave it back and it was absolutely empty. We invited some people, some IT specialists who tried to recognized (Gnap: restore) something but they told us it looked like everything was absolutely deleted and reformatted. It looks like the police also don’t have this video. We didn't include it in the documentary because we didn't have strong proof that it was done by the SBU and it could take a lot of time to prove it. We would need to know what time, who took it etc.

But you know that this video existed at one point?

Anna Babinets: Yes.

Has anybody seen it?

Anna Babinets: No, only that person who worked with the video. We didn't see it. Only the SBU and it's very strange.

So you could definitely go on but there is a change because it is already public. But what are we looking at now? As a journalist what can you do at this stage?

Dmytro Gnap: Well we promised that we would continue this investigation because we have some data that hadn't been included into this investigation and into this film because we need to check it more, first of all. Second we want to finally, as every investigator does, finally we want to know names of the people who executed and organized this absolutely awful crime. We need to continue and we need to go on. I don't know exactly how much time we should spend but we will continue this work because it is a big challenge for Ukrainian journalism. The killing of journalists here in Ukraine is a big challenge for our media community and we will try to find these guys who did it to protect our profession and our right to our profession.

Part of the story was in the documentary, that there was information brought to the editor in chief of "Ukrainska Pravda" that they were observed, there were people following Pavel and Olena Prytula. And also there were some cases of possible watching of the media. How was doing this work for you? I understand you have to maintain absolute secrecy and you are investigators doing a lot of other stories as well, but how hard was it to work on this specific project?

Anna Babinets: I don't remember, I didn't notice anything strange but this was a condition of this work. Because it was an international team we encrypted everything, I mean all our emails, we encrypted everything every text, every video, we sent each other, it was absolutely encrypted. We didn't use any open or unsafe things for conversations and negotiations about it. This was one of the conditions because we knew that it's very sensitive. I know that Dmytro and Vlad, when they met with Ustimenko the second time some strange things happened.

Dmytro Gnap: Yes, during our second meeting with this Ihor Ustimenko, ex-SBU officer or serviceman, we pointed out a guy who watched us during the meeting and tried to film us with his mobile phone camera. He looked like a guy from the law enforcement structure in civilian clothing. In a very humoristic manner Ihor confirmed that this guy was with him and maybe he promised to share this video recording of us. It was very humoristic, but at the same time it was a very serious thing. We can suspect that Igor is linked to law enforcement structures or secret services.

Or at least is not just an independent person or an average person.

Dmytro Gnap: Yes, he is not a simple or stupid guy, like he tried to pretend.