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Bihus says SBU is behind surveillance

05.02.2024, 20:00
Denys Bihus. Bihus.Info livestream screenshot by the IMI
Denys Bihus. Bihus.Info livestream screenshot by the IMI

Denys Bihus, head of the investigative journalist project Bihus.Info, says that his team was being surveilled by the Security Service of Ukraine. He reported this on the project's YouTube channel on February 5.

"It was the SBU Department for the Protection of National Statehood that sent 30 people here to install cameras in the hotel and our rooms and even in the sauna," Bihus said. The editors believe that covert cameras were unlawfully installed in the sauna and at least eight rooms (the bungalows "Carrot", "Cherries", "Khata-2", "Khata-3").

He does not rule out that "a legal pretext was laid out" for the surveillance.

"I would not be surprised, but I do not know for sure. And what do I know is that that the boundaries of legality have been brazenly crossed and exploited to spy on the entire editorial team, to get at least some sort of compromising material, at least on someone, and the obtained content was used for the obvious purpose of trying to discredit journalists," Bihus said.

On their website, Bihus.Info wrote that they had identified those who installed the hidden cameras in the hotel rooms where the team was staying on December 27, 2023. This was achieved with the help of the footage from the CCTV cameras in the recreation complex.

The journalists say that the SBU Department for the Protection of National Statehood (DPNS) was behind the operation. Judging by the footage, the Department of Operational and Technical Support was probably also involved in the installation of the equipment.

According to the journalists, the operation in the complex itself lasted six days. First, SBU officers arrived at the complex twice between December 15 and 22, 2023, under the pretense of arranging a corporate party for office employees to closely inspect the rooms that the Bihus.Info team would occupy on December 27, 2023.

The group inspecting the institution was led by a tall, thin man who called himself "Ihor". He left a phone number for the hotel administration, which is now disconnected. But even in the short time this temporary number had been used, someone managed to tag it as "Ihor SBU".

The team identified this man as Ihor Borysovych Kravchenko, an SBU employee. The phone tags of his permanent number also include many mentions of the DPNS and "M", which indicates the Statehood Protection Department management.

During the preliminary reconnaissance, Ihor Kravchenko and his team also took notes on the location of CCTV cameras on the premises and inspected various entrances.

The team identified this man as the SBU officer Ihor Borysovych Kravchenko. Photo by Bihus.Info

Then, on December 26, 30 people led by the aforementioned Kravchenko from the DPNS arrived at the hotel disguised as their own corporate company. Some of them brought large suitcases which, according to the journalists, contained the equipment for installation. The group carrying large suitcases left the hotel on the same evening. This group was driving a blue Volkswagen Caddy, which is the car model used by the operational and technical support of the SBU.

The rest, led by Ihor Kravchenko from the DPNS, stayed overnight until the morning of December 27.

Among those, the journalists recognized Yevhen Oleksandrovych Konovalenko, who regularly visits the DPNS office. In 2020, he filed a declaration as an SBU employee (the declaration has since been removed from the public part of the register due to the war). Konovalenko did not respond to the editor's question as to who ordered him to participate in the operation.

Furthermore, the journalists point to a woman (presumably named Yulia) from Ihor Kravchenko's "corporation" who also appears near the DPNS office regularly. The editors noticed her here for three days in a row in January–February 2024, and when they asked her about unlawful surveillance, the woman locked herself in a coffee shop.

The Bihus.Info team identified the people spying on them. Photo by Bihus.Info

The Bihus.Info viewers also recognized the man pictured below as Taras Viktorovych Sadovnyk. According to both the sources and his phone tags, Sadovnyk recently transferred from the Khmelnytsky SBU to Kyiv, namely to the DPNS. The man did not answer the journalists' calls.

The Bihus.Info team identified the people spying on them. Photo by Bihus.Info

On December 27, several people with ties to Ihor Kravchenko moved into the complex together with the Bihus.Info team. As can be seen from the CCTV cameras in the hotel, their purpose was to spy on the team.

On the evening of December 28, after Bihus.Info left the complex, another group of men booked most of the rooms where the team had been staying. The roomes were booked by another "Ihor". The phone number he used for this also turned out to be for one-time use – it has also been disconnected and was only two digits away from Ihor Kravchenko's temporary number.

The journalists note that this group of men, which apparently came to pick up the hidden equipment, also included at least one person who had previously attended the "corporate party" with Ihor Kravchenko. This group visited some of the rooms and also the sauna.

On January 1, 2024, another, third group came back to the hotel. They booked the two rooms above the sauna. These rooms has been booked and paid for on December 28 by "Ihor #2". He tried to rent them for December 28, but could not, as they had already been booked by outsiders.

During their own investigation, the journalists recorded evidence of camera installation in various rooms. In the bungalows decorated like stylized Ukrainian khatas, the cameras were installed in clothes hangers. The holes for them were cut out both in the hangers and in the walls.

The spots where cameras were installed to spy on the Bihus.Info team. Photos by Bihus.Info

The spots where cameras were installed to spy on the Bihus.Info team. Photos by Bihus.Info

The journalists say that in the sauna, the camera was installed in the mezzanine. As for the other rooms, the Bihus.Info team recalled seeing devices in the ceiling, which looked similar to fire alarms and were absent by the time the journalists were inspecting the hotel.

The journalists note that in their written comment, the SBU omitted the issues of whether they had received a warrant to install covert equipment in bedrooms and how the wiretapped audios and videos from the covert cameras in the bedrooms ended up on low-quality news websites.

They also noted that, having inspected the hotel on January 17, 2024, they discovered no signs that any hidden equipment had been installed there. That day, the SBU was coming to the complex to seize the servers that contained footage of those who had installed the cameras.

The journalists note that the SBU also dodged the question of whether there were any criminal cases open against any of the former or current members of the team. The SBU only mentioned the case initiated by the National Police under Article 307 of the Criminal Code, where "a Bihus.Info camerawoman appears."

However, the SBU did not specify their role in that case, nor the dates it was open and closed, nor the case number. The Bihus.Info camerawoman received no suspicion notice, she was not summoned for questioning in any proceedings under Article 307, nor has she been informed that she had been a target of covert investigative actions, as required by Article 253 of the CPC. We remind you that some of the previously leaked phone conversations took place over a year ago, according to the recorded persons. The leaked recordings indicate that multiple people's phones were wiretapped.

In the conversation with Bihus.Info, Roman Semenchenko, the ex-head of the Statehood Protection Department who was dismissed on January 31, 2024, did not deny his participation and recommended contacting the head of the SBU or the press office for comments.

On January 16, the head of the Bihus.Info project, Denys Bihus, recorded a statement in response to a provocative video shared on YouTube by the website "Narodna Pravda", wherein his employees negotiate the purchase of drugs and use them, and reported unlawful surveillance and wiretapping. He also announced staff changes.

The phones of the Bihus.Info team were wiretapped for several months, according to Denys Bihus's second video address. He says that the leaked phone conversation recordings point to this. These conversations happened some time apart.

On January 17, the Security Service of Ukraine opened a case over unlawful wiretapping and video surveillance of Bihus.Info employees. On the same day, SBU officers searched at the suburban complex where the Bihus.Info team members were illegally recorded on video. The law enforcers confiscated the hard drives with CCTV footage. On January 18, it was reported that the Kyiv Oblast National Police HQ had opened a pre-trial investigation into the violation of privacy following a statement by Bihus.Info journalist Maria Zemlyanska. The National Police is investigating four cases related to surveillance of Bihus.Info journalists.

The team performed their own investigation, and Denys Bihus reported that at least 30 people were involved in the surveillance operation targeting the team. The surveillance cameras were installed in the rooms where the project's employees, mostly women, stayed. Other guests at the hotel were also under unauthorized surveillance.

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