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Who Killed Iryna Nozdrovska?

The murder of a prominent female lawyer in Ukraine brings into question the progress of reform and revolution. From openDemocracy. by Valeria Costa-Kostritsky 24 January 2018

On the day she disappeared, Iryna Nozdrovska took a bus from the Heroes of the Dnipro metro station in north Kyiv to the village of Demydiv, where she lived with her elderly parents and 18 year-old daughter Anastasiya. Two days before, Nozdrovska had sat in a court that blocked the amnesty of Dmytro Rossoshansky, the man who had been convicted for running over and killing Iryna’s younger sister Svitlana two years before. At the time of Svitlana’s death, Dmytro’s great uncle, a judge, was the head of a local district court. In Ukraine, police reform has been heralded as one of Maidan’s flagship reforms, one that would get rid of endemic corruption and selective justice — but it has faced mounting public criticism, especially in light of the Nozdrovska case.

 

The seven-year sentence against Rossoshansky was the result of a long fight which had seen Iryna quit her job to concentrate on a case she felt the police and the court were intent on burying. According to Ukrainian MP Mustafa Nayyem, a member of Petro Poroshenko Bloc, Dmytro Rossoshansky’s father had threatened Nozdrovska during the court session, telling her: “You will come to a bad end.” Iryna had a car, but lately the 38-year-old lawyer hadn’t been using it, her parents told me, as she was saving on petrol. Buses to Demydiv drive north through Kyiv, first going past high rises and then through expanses of forest. They play shanson or contemporary pop songs. The ride itself takes about half an hour. People say the road is good: it leads to Mezhyhirya, what used to be former president Viktor Yanukovych’s luxury estate.

 

When I visited Iryna’s relatives on the Sunday following her funeral, it was snowing. Two policemen had been dispatched to ensure the family’s protection. There’s two houses on the property. A smaller, antiquated one, where the parents live, and a new one, where Iryna lived with her daughter. Sitting in a room full of children toys, where the TV, the mirrors and the icons were covered with towels, Iryna’s parents seemed to have been made smaller by grief. Still, they were intent on speaking. Kateryna, Iryna’s 62-year-old mother, who would sometimes stop talking to sob against the back of the sofa where we are sitting, tells me that on 29 December she had called her daughter at 4:30pm. “She said she was in Petrivtsi, which meant she’d be home in 20 minutes, but she never arrived. And the next time I called there was no answer.”

 

Screenshot of a TV show discussing Iryna Nozdrovska's case. Image via 112 Ukraine/Youtube.

 

That was unusual. The family, who claim that they had repeatedly been threatened over the years by Rossoshansky’s family and his friends, were immediately worried. Iryna’s father, Serhiy, told me that they had all walked to the bus stop to meet her, stood there as two or three buses went past, but they couldn’t find any trace of Iryna. By then, night had fallen.

 

Anastasiya told me: “It took two hours for the police to come. They seemed not to want to do anything about her disappearance. They asked if we were sure it wasn’t a PR stunt.” The police only issued a missing person notice on the following day, publishing it on Facebook.

 

Facing the apparent inertia of the police, Iryna’s family and friends took matters in their own hands. They immediately shared the news of her disappearance on social media, asking for help in finding her. According to Anastasiya, around 100 people gathered at noon on 1 January. “We were still waiting for more people to arrive when we were told that a body had been found.” A man walking his dog had called the police after finding the naked body of a woman in the river. The police later confirmed this was Iryna Nozdrovska’s body. She had been stabbed 15 times and died on 29 December.

 

The news of Nozdrovska’s murder went viral. On 2 January, people protested in front of Kyiv’s National Police headquarters. The U.S. embassy in Ukraine expressed shock over the killing and said those responsible should be brought to justice. “News of someone powerful killing a passerby at the wheel without any investigation taking place are so common,” Tetiana Pechonchyk, a member of Ukraine’s Human Rights Information Centre, explains why the case has provoked such strong feelings. “People identified with what happened to Svitlana and with her sister’s fight. We all think it could happen to us. That’s why I’m so careful when I cross the street. This is something people get furious about.”

 

On 9 January, the day of Iryna’s funeral, a crowd of journalists followed an excruciating ceremony where her father kept shouting “Monsters, monsters, junkies killed my daughter!” while her mother called “Don’u,” the intimate name given to one’s daughter in Ukrainian. Iryna’s friend Vitalii stepped away to smoke a cigarette and told me, absentmindedly, as we stared at the family’s backyard: “I saw her at the morgue. They did the best job possible with her body... Considering...” Later, a procession walked across the village, stopping for a moment at the spot where Svitlana had been run over by Dmytro Rossoshansky while walking to the bus stop at eight in the morning. In the cemetery, they buried Iryna next to her sister, each grave headed by the photo of a blonde woman, smiling.

 

Lidia Goncharenko, whom I met at the funeral, held a one-woman protest in front of Kyiv’s Prosecutor’s Office the following day. Goncharenko is part of the Andriyivsky Citizen Action group, and told me Iryna had contacted her, asking for help with her sister’s case. “In Vyshgorod district, no one listened to her for two years. She claimed that Rossoshansky’s blood test had been tainted, that the blood sample wasn’t his and that he had been driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs. She said she could prove it. She discovered he had a track record including car theft, robbery and driving on drugs, but had never been convicted. She managed to obtain a change of venue for the trial, arguing of a risk of conflict of interest. That’s when things started moving forward. What she wanted was for a retrial to establish that Rossoshansky had failed to call emergency services. That way he wouldn’t be eligible for an amnesty. Everyone says the system is guilty but you’re part of the system, so you have to change yourself.”

 

In the waiting room of the Prosecutor’s office, an older woman called Natalia told me she would always be grateful to Iryna for helping her with her own case. She depicted a judicial system in complete failure: “Very often, the relatives of someone who has been killed will want to act in the weeks that follow the death. That’s when they get a lawyer. But then, very often, witnesses are paid, they retract their statement, and people don’t have the energy to push through. Iryna kept at it because Rossoshansky’s relatives said her sister had thrown herself under the wheels of his car. It’s bad enough when there’s a tragedy. It becomes unbearable if you add insult to it.”

 

Most members of the Andriyivsky group campaign for increased accountability and against what they say are illegal constructions in one of Kyiv’s oldest neighborhoods. Yulia Didenko, part of the Andriyivsky group, attended a few of the Maidan trials, which are judging individuals accused of having killed, beaten or framed Maidan supporters. She says it’s important to monitor them and believes that the people responsible will be let off the hook if there’s no public interest — many of them are still in power, in the police and the security services. As we walk towards Klovska metro station, Didenko points at a huge building recently erected opposite her house, on Mechnykova Street, which she claims breaches all regulations: “This chaos is just how those who have power live. This chaos is their life.”

 

In the flurry of articles that followed her death, Iryna has often been referred to as a civil rights defender. “What kind of civil rights defender was she, though?” a friend who works in the field mused, while munching on a salad. “One who called anyone who stood in her way a junkie or a drunk? Who wanted for a man to sit in jail as long as possible? Wasn’t she mostly working on her sister’s case and seeking vengeance?” Always contrarian, video blogger and troll Anatolii Sharii seemed to take pleasure in posting videos he claimed challenged Nozdrovska’s credibility, for instance raw footage filmed by a member of the Rossoshansky family during a skirmish which showed Iryna and her mother howling “Murderer!”

 

Rossoshansky’s family said Dmytro had stopped drinking in 2015. He qualified for an amnesty because he suffers from cirrhosis and hepatitis. Nozdrovska also seemed to have had a taste for litigation. She claimed the fact her sister’s widower had signed a statement renouncing any claims against Dmytro Rossoshansky showed he had been scared or bought off. In 2016, Iryna’s parents sued him to obtain visiting rights and she represented them in court. She tried to show her sister’s widower didn’t fulfill his parental duties and to discredit his current partner, and failed to do so. The man claimed he hadn’t been visiting his son’s grandparents because the family lived in an atmosphere that was tense and aggressive.

 

“My mum understood that for a case not to be forgotten you have to call the press, so she got in touch with all the outlets she could, the good ones, the bad ones, everything,” Anastasiya tells me, as we sit on the huge bed that seems to have become her refuge and her office. Iryna took part in a TV show called “The Investigation Is Conducted by Psychics” where a woman claiming to be a medium retraced her sister’s last steps with her. “I can feel a dark masculine energy,” the woman says as they reached the spot where Svitlana had been killed, before urging Iryna to let go of her anger. “We also got invited to a talk show, and they promised only our family would be there. But when we arrived the Rossoshansky family occupied half the studio. They called me again this time but I’m not going back. I just want to talk to journalists who are interested in finding out what happened,” Anastasiya says.

 

Journalist Volodymyr Timofiychuk met Iryna while covering her sister’s death for a sensationalist TV show. Timofiychuk now works for Ukraine TV channel. We meet in the cafeteria, after he made sure I wasn’t working for a pro-Russian outlet. He tells me Iryna had found out Rossoshansky had been admitted to the hospital with “white fever” (delirium tremens) six months before running over Svitlana. He says: “I bonded with Iryna because we both refuse corruption. We both refuse to pay when we’re asked to. I’m the guy who reminds the marshrutka drivers that when pensioners ask if they can travel for free they can’t say no, because there’s a law that guarantees that. You can even read it in the texts plastered inside the car. No one likes you for doing that. Iryna was the same. She knew existing laws. But she would bump into people who would tell her that these laws didn’t matter. That would make me shout. She shouted. But to understand who she was I think you’d have to go through the amount of loss she experienced. You didn’t have to like her, no. But to kill her for that?”

 

On the evening of 8 January, the police arrested a man in connection with Nozdrovska’s murder. This was later revealed to be Yuriy Rossoshansky, Dmytro Rossoshansky’s father, who had confessed to the lawyer’s murder. He said he had met Iryna at the bus stop while drunk and carrying a knife, had a violent discussion with her, stabbed her and carried her body to the river, where he had thrown her after taking off her clothes which he later burnt. By then, most people didn’t believe the version of the police.

 

On 11 January, Anastasiya and the four lawyers working pro bono on her mother’s murder held a press conference asking for transparency, lamenting the fact the prosecution hadn’t shared all the evidence with them (this, however, seems standard before an investigation is over). By then, the murder seemed to have become the talk of every household in the city and everyone was playing detective. My flat mate tells me the killer’s methods, undressing the victim, getting rid of her phone and burning her clothes, reminded her of contract killings that 1990s television series are full of. Timofiychuk has questions: “Rossoshansky’s father said he stabbed her at the bus stop. Where is the blood then? And where is Iryna’s bag?” According to Nozdrovska’s parents, Rossoshansky’s wife claimed the police had made her husband confess in exchange for the promised amnesty of his son.

 

Mikhail Krivoruchkin, from Donetsk, met Iryna during Maidan, when she came to the anti-corruption bureau he had opened with friends. Sitting in her parents’ living room, looking wary, Krivoruchkin tells me of all the enemies she could have made, of all the people she had bothered. “There’s the police officers she got fired for faulty procedure,” Mikhail says. “There’s these friends of Rossoshansky who sat at the trial and looked like they had done time in jail,” Iryna’s father tells me. “My mum had been investigating tenders, a case where the director of a school put money in her pocket. I think that when money is involved people can do everything,” Anastasiya says. For now, members of Iryna’s close circle believe someone could have used Yuriy Rossoshansky’s well-known enmity with Iryna to kill her and frame him. None of them had any trust in the police. President Petro Poroshenko’s congratulations to the police, claiming  “such a fast crime solution indicates the extremely high potential of the reformed National Police”, only made things worse.

 

For Mikhail, who cannot go back to Donetsk to see his mother after he fought on the pro-Ukrainian side, has seen friends die, has no home and no job, the hopes raised by the Maidan revolution have soured. Iryna’s daughter told me her mother had been very involved in Maidan, following what was happening avidly, constantly worrying, bringing cigarettes and food to the square.

 

“The whole country had hoped it could change its course, through blood, the blood shed on Maidan,” Anastasiya says. But Iryna’s mother told me her daughter had recently asked her: “Why did we stand on Maidan? What good did it do?” Katerina adds: “What we wanted was for things to get better. They only got worse.” In Demydiv, the old sovkhoz, or state-owned farm, closed long ago. There are no jobs and many people drink. Liberal policies favored by pro-European politicians like Nayyem are unlikely to make life better in this kind of village. Anastasiya hopes the family can sell what they have and raise enough money to move to Kyiv while she continues her legal studies to become a lawyer, like her mum. “When everything slows down, it will sink in, what happened,” she says.

 

Before leaving Kyiv, I spoke to a journalist who claimed that an aide to the Minister of Internal Affairs leaked police evidence to them. “Something quite ironic is happening, really. The police failed so monumentally in this case [at the start] that now that they’ve actually worked hard and seemed to come up with the culprit, but no one believes them anymore. It’s karma.” They add: “The Ministry’s communication has been so bad for so long— they seem to have been barking at us since Arsen Avakov’s appointment — that they don’t know how to communicate anymore so they leak documents to journalists instead.” The evidence, the journalist claimed, was quite compelling. “During the murder’s reconstruction, they used a mannequin as well as a body double for Iryna. Yuriy Rossoshansky is tall and seems strong. He didn’t have any trouble carrying the woman to the bridge where he says he dropped Iryna’s body. And she said she had been scared.” According to the journalist, during the police reconstruction Iryna’s bank card and second phone were also found.

 

“Iryna didn’t only work as a lawyer on her sister’s case,” the journalist adds. “The situation made her investigate all the case by herself. The investigator did nothing. So she served him motions, to make him work. In a country where things work normally, she wouldn’t have had to investigate her sister’s killing. The police investigator would have done that. And if Rossoshansky’s family had had any resentment, any hatred, it would have been directed at the police. Instead, all the evil thoughts were directed at Iryna and there was no fear to kill her.”

Valeria Costa-Kostritsky is a French journalist based in London. She writes about politics, women's rights and social issues for publications including L'Obs, the London Review of Books and Index on Censorship.

 

This article originally appeared in openDemocracy.org.

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