A car bomb in Kyiv today (20 July) killed a pro-Western reporter from a news site, whose founder was beheaded 16 years ago after probing the alleged crimes of Ukrainian leaders.
The killing of 44-year-old Pavel Sheremet added a new degree of uncertainty and fear to a former Soviet republic that is struggling with a 26-month pro-Russian eastern insurgency and going through a prolonged stretch of economic woes.
It also underscores the dangers Ukrainian reporters face despite the former Soviet republic’s alliance with the West and historic break with Moscow in a 2014 pro-EU revolt.
Sheremet, a Russian national, died when his bomb-rigged car exploded while he was driving.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko immediately demanded that the perpetrators be brought to justice for this “terrible tragedy”.
“I am shocked – there are no other words for it,” the president wrote on Facebook.
Sheremet “was my personal friend. I sympathise with his relatives and friends.”
The charred remains of Sheremet’s vehicle, with all the doors open and the windshield shattered, stood on a cobbled street in central Kyiv behind a police cordon as investigators worked at the scene while sirens wailed.
A taxi driver who gave his name only as Petro told AFP that the blast was so fierce that “the flames from the windscreen went up to the second floor.”
“We rushed to the car and opened the door, he was lying on the floor and groaning. He was in shock from pain and his legs seemed to be broken,” the driver said.
He said that witnesses called for an ambulance and started dragging Sheremet out of the burning car.
The journalist was unable to speak but was moaning from pain. He was still alive when the ambulance came.
The interior ministry called Sheremet’s killing a “brazen murder” aimed at destabilising the country.
Russian national Sheremet was originally from Belarus. He was kicked out of his native country after criticising its authoritarian President Alexenader Lukashenko.
He wrote opinion pieces and conducted interviews with senior Ukrainian officials in which he often demanded answers for the slow pace of Kyiv’s efforts to stamp out embedded corruption and achieve sustainable growth.
Sheremet had worked for several years at Ukrainska Pravda. Its founder Georgiy Gongadze was murdered in 2000 after opposing then-president Leonid Kuchma – a close ally of Russia at the time.
Gongadze’s killing was a national scandal that dragged on through the courts for years and at one point appeared to implicate Kuchma himself.
But Kuchma escaped conviction and no one has yet been charged with ordering Gongadze’s death.
Ukrainska Pravda editor Sevgil Musaieva-Borovyk told AFP she thought Sheremet was killed because of his “professional activity”.
“Why do they kill journalists in Ukraine? Someone wants to destabilise the situation in the country by doing this,” the editor said.
Russia voices ‘serious concern’
The Belarus-born Sheremet was founder of the popular Belarussky Partizan opposition news website.
He then worked for Russia’s ORT television network and at one point was anchor on the country’s most watched news show Vremya (Time).
He later joined Russia’s state Obshestvennoye Televideniye (Public Television) before resigning after less than a year in protest against Russia’s stance toward Ukraine.
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov said “the murder of a Russian citizen and a journalist in Ukraine is cause for very serious concern in the Kremlin.”
The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe’s Freedom of the Media representative Dunja Mijatovic said in a statement that “we have lost a prominent and dedicated journalist”.
The killing comes as Ukraine continues to battle pro-Russian separatists in its east and is still struggling to reach stability amid political infighting and an economic collapse.
The conflict that Kyiv and its allies accuse Russia of plotting and backing has claimed nearly 9,500 lives and devastated Moscow’s ties with the West at time when the two are trying to find a joint solution to the Syrian war.