Denis Yaroshenko could hardly believe his luck.
Minutes away from being late to work, the mechanic stood in front of the apartment he had recently bought, unable to enter. He had lost the only set of keys to the apartments and was unable to let the construction workers in to complete renovations. He was left little choice: Yaroshenko authorized the crew to break down the door with a sledgehammer, and proceeded out of the building at a brisk pace. In order for Denis to reach his car - parked on the street amidst a cold winter day - he had to pass by the residence of longtime friend Amar Suloev.
Suloev, easily recognizable with his menacing figure and ethnic appearance, had just stepped out of his house. With 15 years of friendship between them, the two old friends quickly said hello. Yaroshenko kept glancing at his watch nervously: he was already late to work. He apologized to his friend and offered to meet with him later on. Who could have predicted that this would be the last time he would see Suloev again?
Yaroshenko got in his car and looked at his watch. It was 9:05 am on February, 22. He was already five minutes late to work. The date held little significance at the time. It was just another ordinary day for an ordinary mechanic.
It took Denis three years to realize he seen Suloev at the exact time he was believed to have been a part of an assassination attempt...all the way across town.
On May 24, 2016, the sun had chosen to shine on the North Caucasus Military District Court. A particularly high-profile case was about to face a breakthrough.
Sergei Zirinov, a Krasnodar parliamentarian and member of the Legislative Assembly, was on trial for the alleged murders of of various political figures. Zirinov, along with five other defendants, were charged with "banditry, murder and arms trafficking." The so-called 'Zirinov gang' is believed to have killed the director of the Malaya Bukhta sanatorium, Vitaly Sadovnichy, and his wife Olga Ivankina, as well as businessman Salman Nabiyev. They had attempted to assassinate Nikolai Nesterenko but killed his driver instead and left the deputy wounded from the injuries.
One of the five defendants was UFC veteran Amar Suloev, a renowned Yazidi fighter from Southern Russia who once stood opposite Chuck Liddell in the octagon. Unlike his counterparts locked in the glass cell in the courthouse - infamously known as the 'Aquarium' by any who have seen it up close - Suloev was not present at the proceedings. The 40-year-old had been taken to hospital and diagnosed with Stage 4 stomach cancer. His case has been suspended by the court, and Suloev was released on bail in order to seek actual medical help.
Though Suloev's case had been separated from the 'Zirinov gang,' judge Oleg V. Volkov, allowed two eye witnesses to speak in his defence. One of them was the fighter's longtime friend Denis Yaroshenko. The other was Marianne Dzhunabaeva, Suloev's neighbour. She informed the court that she had seen Suloev outside his own house at 9am on the day of the assassination.
"I came out at a quarter to nine of my home with the kids and went to Suloev's family house," Marianne told the court. "Around 9:00, I came to the house and saw Amar Suloev. I said hello and exchanged a few words."
It was an alibi that state prosecution intended to test vigorously.
Marianne was asked to describe Suloev's house, the clothes he was wearing that fateful morning - a dark jacket and dark blue jeans, she vividly recalled - and what took her so long to come to this realization.
Next came the forgetful mechanic who misplaced his keys.
Yaroshenko detailed his relationship with Suloev. They two had met in the gym and shared a keen interest in sports. They were neighbours, as Yaroshenko lived in a modern high-rise, while Suloev lived next door at his family home. On February 22, Denis had forgotten his keys and was thus placed in quite the predicament.
"I work from nine, I could not be late. At nine I had to give orders to the workers. I keep looking at the time because all the workers were late."
Following Suloev's arrest with the remainder of the gang in 2013, one of the defendants, Dmitry Sholokhov, offered a testimony in exchange for a shortened sentence. He placed Amar as the driver during the botched Nesterenko murder. However, given that the assassination attempt took place at approximately 9am several hundred kilometres away from the location of Suloev's alibi, there is now reason to believe that he was not a part of the assassination attempt.
Though terminally ill, Suloev finally had an opportunity to clear his name.
It remains unclear how the North Caucasus Military District Court will handle the latest twist in the Zirinov gang case.
Suloev's case had already been suspended ahead of his release from bail. His trial and case was separated from the remainder of the defendants and it was announced at the time that it would not resume unless he had regained his health. Given his terminal battle with stomach cancer, few expect the case to be reopened again.
Unfortunately for Suloev, this was not the first glimmer of hope following years of darkness and despair. During the court proceedings in 2015, a witness, Tatiana Nesterenko, stated that the driver in the botched assassination attempt was a frail man of Slavic appearance. He weighed no more than 50 kilograms. Given that Suloev, at the time, was a professional athlete who weighed over 100 kilograms and maintained an "oriental" appearance according to the court, it was a significant addition to his defence.
"There are two options: either fired from another car or the shooters were different people," Suloev's lawyer, Anna Stavitskaya, said (h/t 1rnd.ru). "Suloev a man of pronounced Oriental appearance. To mix it with a man of Slavic appearance is absolutely impossible. And he certainly can not be called lean. Suloev is a professional fighter and a champion of the world. At that time there were 105 kilos of solid muscle. "
Suloev remained in prison that year, unable to get the medical attention he so desperately needed. Had the court reacted sooner, his case may not have been in dire straits.
With only a few months left to live, time is running out for Suloev to clear his name.