ODESSA, Ukraine — Defense lawyer Yuriy Grabovskiy often told his friends and colleagues: “Surprisingly, nobody has rubbed me out yet.” But his words were never taken seriously. None of his friends thought of recommending that the charismatic lawyer hire bodyguards. Openly gay, Jewish, with a good sense of humor, he was famous for kidding around, even under pressure.
He was also famous for his personal style, wearing expensive suits, excellent perfume, smoking shisha pipes in restaurants with friends, driving a luxurious convertible, and always keeping his papers in perfect order. Instead of business cards, Grabovskiy gave his friends matchboxes with a picture of him holding a baby tiger on the cover.
Only when investigators announced last month that somebody had kidnapped Grabovskiy, drugged him, humiliated him on video, cracked his skull, burned his fingertips, shot him in the side and in the head, and buried his body in a muddy field between Odessa and Kiev, did people realize just how great were the risks taken by the 43-year-old attorney.
Military prosecutors investigating the murder believe it was Grabovskiy’s latest case that did him in. He was defending a Russian, Alexander Alexandrov, allegedly from Moscow’s foreign military intelligence service, GRU, arrested in eastern Ukraine last May. Ukrainian prosecutors claimed that Alexandrov was on a military mission fighting alongside separatist units in eastern Ukraine. Moscow insisted that Grabovskiy’s client had resigned before joining those rebel forces. Whatever the facts, Grabovskiy thought the man deserved a defense. But others, clearly, thought otherwise, if, indeed, this was the reason he was killed.
“Our colleagues are being attacked and murdered one by one,” the head of Ukraine’s National Association of Lawyers, Lidiya Izovitova, told The Daily Beast. “Yuriy’s murder was clearly directed and staged by professionals, it is a matter of dignity for all of us to find out the truth about what happened to lawyer Grabovskiy.”
His friends, defense lawyers running an independent investigation of the case, told The Daily Beast that Grabovskiy was kidnapped on March 5, after checking into the Arkadia Hotel, a comfortable four-star establishment in Odessa. That is when his abduction appears to have taken place. The next day, he appeared briefly at his office in Kiev, but investigators believe he was by then under the control of his kidnappers. His colleagues remember he looked awkward, behaving strangely. Without so much as acknowledging their hellos, the lawyer rushed to his safe, took something from it—valuables and papers, according to friends—and walked out, leaving the door of the safe open.
Throughout that incident, the lawyer was shadowed by a man in his 30s who was unknown to the staff.
“That was very unusual, Grabovskiy never rushed, he was a self-confident man doing everything on time, and a strong personality,” said Grabovskiy’s personal assistant, Bagdan, who asked that his last name not be published. Last year Bagdan, 23, came to work at the office right after graduating from the law school, hoping to learn from the well-regarded lawyer. Last week Bagdan had to identify his boss’s body in the morgue.
Lawyers often are murdered in post-Soviet states; 70 defense lawyers were killed in Russia between 2000 and 2014. The idea that either Russian or Ukrainian special services might have ordered Grabovskiy’s murder made his friend Denis Chizhov so nervous that his hands were shaking as he talked about it. “Last time we smoked on this porch on March 4, he told me he would go to Odessa for a couple days and then see me again on the morning of March 7,” he told The Daily Beast.
Grabovsky’s law partner on the Russian GRU officers case, the charismatic attorney Oksana Solokovskaya, is now worried about her own life. “I am still shocked; we were often threatened during the trial, both anonymously and by Ukrainian law enforcement; we were accused of defending Russian terrorists,” said Sokolovskaya, who came to the interview with The Daily Beast with a personal bodyguard.
On the evening of March 4, the day before the abduction, Grabovskiy’s Toyota broke down 167 kilometers away from Odessa, in Krivoye Ozero. According to his friend Igor Cherezov, Grabovskiy had the car towed back to Kiev, and his whereabouts at that time were confirmed. “We managed to find a shop assistant who saw Grabovsky in Krivoye Ozero,” Cherezov said. On the morning of March 5, Grabovskiy checked in at Arkadia in Odessa. The hotel’s administrator refused to reveal the time of his arrival. Police found Grabovskiy’s luggage at the Arkadia three days after the lawyer disappeared.
“His kidnappers drugged him at a private apartment in Odessa,” Cherezov, who now represents the interests of Grabovskiy’s sister, a resident of Israel, told The Daily Beast. “They twisted his hands behind his back and forced him to say that it was mistake to defend the Russian GRU soldier.”
One more independent investigator, Odessa lawyer Vladimir Pasechnik, was watching closely the strange activity on Grabovskiy’s Facebook. “I believe that when Grabovskiy checked on Facebook in Krivoye Ozero was the last time he used his Facebook himself,” Pasechnik told The Daily Beast. No family, no parents—work was all that Grabovskiy had in his life. During his last days on this earth he was dealing with about a dozen legal cases. He was one of the most respected defense lawyers in Ukraine. The wall in his office at Grabovskiy & Partners was covered in honorary letters and medals. Grabovskiy believed in human rights and offered his services to everybody, from Russian separatist rebels to Ukrainian nationalist radicals. Last autumn he defended one of the Svoboda party nationalists who was accused of blowing up a grenade outside of the Ukrainian parliament.
His kidnappers forced Grabovskiy to say on camera that he would not defend his Russian client Aleksandr Alexandrov in court any longer. On the video taken by one of the arrested suspects and released this week by military prosecutors investigating the murder, Grabovsky’s interrogator can be heard twice asking why Grabovskiy would drop the case. “It was a mistake,” Grabovskiy said slowly.
“On that video you can see that Grabovskiy was badly drugged by tranquilizers, his eyes were closing, he had sweat on his forehead,” said Cherzov. “Besides, knowing what an aesthete Grabovsky was—he would like to pose in a white suit in his cabriolet—he would never agree to wear an undershirt in front of a video camera.”
If one defense lawyer is killed, another takes his place. Next week Russian citizen Alexandrov will have a new defender, Valentin Rybkin. “I have a group called Odyssey—we defend Russians accused of participating in military actions, terrorism in Ukraine,” Rybkin told The Daily Beast.
In fact, the community of defense lawyers all across Ukraine is trying to put a brave face on their work, but this is not the first time a defender of controversial clients fell a victim of violence. Attacks on Ukrainian defense lawyers working on such cases have come one after another. Last week, somebody fired a machine gun at the car of Pavel Nasadchuk, the defender of the so-called “diamond prosecutor,” Vladimir Shapakin. A few weeks ago another famous defense lawyer, Viktor Loiko, was killed in his apartment in Kharkov.
The head of the Odessa region’s bar association, Iosif Bronz, is furioius about leaks and speculation in some Ukrainian reports Grabovskiy fell victim to an unfortunate choice of gay companion: “The murder looks more like a special operation by secret services, and the state, which fails to defend lawyers, who essentially are always in opposition, has big problems,” Bronz told The Daily Beast. And that, in turn, plays into Kremlin propaganda: “I can see that in Russia news reports do their best at discrediting the state of Ukraine after this murder,” Bronz added.
Who was behind the plot? On the eve of Grabovskiy’s funeral last Saturday, investigators leaked the names and photographs of two arrested suspects, one 19 and one 26, both of whom looked like buff “playboys” in the local vernacular. In order to confuse the investigation, the older suspect had flown from Odessa to Sharm el Sheikh, Egypt, with Grabovskiy’s cellphone and posted photographs of the beach on Grabovskiy’s Facebook page.
Military prosecutors told reporters that both suspects were surprising well trained and that there were four more men suspected in the kidnapping and killing of Grabovskiy. Ukraine’s chief military prosecutor, Anatoliy Matios, says he is convinced that the murder was ordered by one or another secret service, either Russian or Ukrainian, and promised to find and punish the real mastermind, “No matter what office they occupy.”
Grabovskiy’s partner on the Russian soldier’s case, Oksana Sokolovskaya, said: “I do not believe in a trivial murder. It is definitely connected to the case we worked on.”
Odessa city hall official Alexander Borovik said that he would not be surprised if local law enforcement was involved in Grabovskiy’s murder: “As if in Chicago-style politics 100 years ago, a mafia runs the police, prosecutors and secret services in Odessa today,” Borovik said. “This is a very dangerous city.”