KYIV -- Pavel Sheremet, an award-winning journalist whose reporting challenged the authorities in Belarus, Russia, and Ukraine over the past two decades, was killed on July 20 when the car he was driving was destroyed by a bomb in downtown Kyiv.
Ukrainian Prosecutor-General Yuriy Lutsenko called Sheremet's death a "murder," saying the blast was caused by an "explosive device" and that all evidence points to an assassination. Colleagues said they believed it was linked to his work.
Belarusian-born Sheremet, 44, a journalist at news website Ukrayinska Pravda, was driving to the offices of Radio Vesti to do a regular morning show when the bomb went off at about 7:45 a.m., officials said. The Interior Ministry said the explosives were planted underneath the car and the blast was set off by “possibly a remote-controlled or delayed-action” detonator.
The explosion destroyed the red sedan Sheremet was driving, which was owned by his partner, Ukrayinska Pravda owner and founding editor Olena Prytula. The force of the blast was equivalent to some 600 grams of TNT.
The ministry said Sheremet’s killers had acted “skillfully."
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko said in televised comments that he believes the killing was carried out "with one aim in mind: to destabilize the situation in the country, possibly ahead of further events."
He said he has requested assistance from the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) in the murder investigation in order to ensure "maximum transparency."
Alyona Horbatko, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv, confirmed to RFE/RL that the FBI would assist its Ukrainian counterparts in the case.
In a statement on July 20 that called for a full and impartial investigation, the U.S. State Department lauded Sheremet for what it called "his courageous and tenacious reporting."
"He played a crucial role in Ukraine’s democracy, reporting on issues important to the public, including corruption and governance," the statement said. "Sheremet’s killing must not be tolerated in a free and democratic society."
At the scene, kiosk operator Lyubov Pereyenko said she had just opened her shop when a deafening blast shook the ground.
“The explosion was so powerful that it sent parts [of the car] flying into my kiosk,” she told RFE/RL.
A barista at a mobile coffee truck said the blast thrust him backward and nearly knocked him to the ground and that it appeared Sheremet was alive when onlookers pulled his mangled body from the scorched vehicle.
“He took a breath. Maybe just one,” said the barista, who did not want to give his name. Sheremet's body was smoking, he added, so bystanders poured water over his body.
Pereyenko said it took first responders five or 10 minutes to arrive at the scene.
Sheremet’s death prompted an immediate outpouring of grief from journalists in Ukraine, where the grisly slaying of Ukrayinska Pravda’s founder 16 years ago has left a cloud over the media and political climate.
“It's terrible. We're all very sad today,” Mustafa Nayyem, a member of parliament and former journalist at Ukrayinska Pravda, told RFE/RL by phone from the site of the morning rush-hour explosion.
Sheremet was also mourned by officials, colleagues, and friends from Belarus, Russia, and further afield.
“Shocked by the murder of Pavel Sheremet,” Michael McFaul, a former U.S. ambassador to Russia, said on Twitter. He called Sheremet “one of the best” journalists and said: “Pavel was such a decent man. So sad."
The U.S. Embassy in Kyiv said in a statement that it was "shocked and saddened" by Sheremet’s death and that it welcomed "statements by the police and prosecutor general that the circumstances surrounding his murder will be fully investigated and any perpetrators brought to justice."
Global rights watchdogs Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch (HRW) called Sheremet's killing a "reprehensible act that has sent a shockwave for freedom of expression in Ukraine."
“We call for better protection of journalists in Ukraine that has a sad record of violence committed against media workers,” Denis Krivosheev, Amnesty International’s deputy director for Europe and Central Asia, said in a statement.
Poroshenko wrote on Facebook that he has ordered security officials to "immediately investigate this crime," adding that "the culprits must be punished."
He held a meeting with senior security officials and ordered security to be provided to Prytula, the president's spokesman said on Twitter.
Sheremet's killing will add to concerns about the future of Ukraine, which is struggling with economic hardship and a two-year-old-old conflict with Russia-backed separatists that has killed more than 9,400 people in the eastern provinces of Donetsk and Luhansk.
WATCH: Video taken in the aftermath of the blast
Sevhil Musayeva-Borovyk, the chief editor at Ukrayinska Pravda, told RFE/RL that she believes Sheremet's killing was related to his work. Other colleagues at the website told RFE/RL that he recently had complained that he was being followed.
Colleagues said they were not aware of a particular piece of reporting that might have been a motive to kill Sheremet.
Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said Sheremet was respected as "a professional who was not afraid to tell different authorities at different times all that he thinks of them."
In a statement, the ministry said it was "shocked by the cynical killing" and sought to portray him as a victim of Ukraine, whose pro-Western government is despised by the Kremlin.
"In Russia, despite divergences in views, he was never threatened with physical violence for his professional activity," the ministry said in the statement. "Unfortunately, his move to Ukraine proved to be fatal for him."
Numerous high-profile journalists who irked authorities with their reporting have died in contract-style killings and suspicious circumstances in Russia, both under President Vladimir Putin and his predecessor, Boris Yeltsin.
Born in Minsk, the capital of Belarus, Sheremet had lived and worked in Kyiv during the last five years as a journalist for Ukrayinska Pravda and a presenter at Radio Vesti. He had previously worked for media in Belarus and Russia, where he faced pressure from authorities for his work.
He had served as editor in chief of the popular independent weekly Belarus Business News as well as anchor and producer of Prospekt, a news analysis program on Belarusian state television that was banned by President Alyaksandr Lukashenka in 1995 -- a year after the authoritarian leader’s election and a week before a referendum that expanded his powers.
WATCH: Eyewitness Account Of The Blast That Killed Pavel Sheremet
The following year, he became the Minsk bureau chief of the Russia’s ORT television.
A crusader for human rights, freedom of speech, and freedom of the press, Sheremet was arrested while shooting a report about smuggling across the Belarus-Lithuanian border in 1997 and sentenced to two years in prison -- a move widely viewed as politically motivated.
Amnesty International declared him a prisoner of conscience and he was released after three months, when Yeltsin intervened.
A critic of Lukashenka's persistent crackdown on dissent, Sheremet was passionate about the fate of people in who disappeared in Belarus in the late 1990s and were never found -- including three opponents of Lukashenka as well as Sheremet’s cameraman, Dmitry Zavadsky.
Sheremet was spokesman for the organization behind Charter 97, a 1997 declaration that called for democracy and human rights in Belarus.
Deliberately reflecting the Charter 77 human rights declaration in Czechoslovakia 20 years earlier, the Charter 97 declaration called for “devotion to the principles of independence, freedom and democracy, respect for human rights,” and “solidarity with everybody who stands for the elimination of the dictatorial regime and restoration of democracy in Belarus.”
Under increasing pressure from Lukashenka’s government, Sheremet moved to Moscow in 1998 and became a leading investigative TV journalist. He produced several documentaries including Chechen Diary, Wild Hunt, and The Empire’s Last Year.
Sheremet was badly beaten in 2004 while covering an election.
Sheremet continued to face threats and harassment in Belarus, where he was badly beaten while covering an election in 2004. He was a founder of Belaruspartizan.org, a popular independent news website that features relentless criticism of Lukashenka’s government.
In July 2014, after he had been living and working in Ukraine for several years, Sheremet resigned from the Russian channel formerly called ORT and now Channel One, saying that any journalist in Russia who dared to contradict the Kremlin’s propaganda was “hounded.”
Sheremet's reporting earned him the International Press Freedom Award from the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) in 1998.
When authorities in Belarus denied permission for Sheremet to travel to New York for the awards ceremony, the Committee to Protect Journalists held a special award ceremony for him in Minsk.
In 2002, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) awarded Sheremet its Prize for Journalism and Democracy in recognition of his human rights reporting in the Balkans and Afghanistan.
That award hailed Sheremet’s efforts to promote “OSCE principles on human rights, democracy, and the unimpeded flow of information.”
Relations between the media and government in Ukraine were poisoned by the killing of Ukrayinska Pravda founder Heorhiy Gongadze, who went missing in September 2000, and successive Ukrainian governments have been accused of restricting media freedoms.
Gongadze's headless body was found in the woods outside Kyiv that November, but was not buried until March of this year. Leonid Kuchma, president when Gongadze was killed, came under suspicion and was charged with involvement in 2011, but the charges were later dropped. A former police general was sentenced to life in prison in 2012 after being convicted of strangling Gongadze to death.
With reporting by RFE/RL's Belarus Service, AP, Reuters, and TASS