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Ukraine Police Scramble To Probe Fresh Claims In Journalist's Car-Bomb Killing

  • Christopher Miller

Investigators inspect the site of a car-bomb attack that killed journalist Pavel Sheremet in central Kyiv in July 2016.

KYIV -- Ukrainian police investigating the car-bomb killing of a Belarus-born journalist are sifting through a new documentary film's claims about the unsolved case, including that a current or former Ukrainian security agent was present when the explosive was planted.

National police chief Serhiy Knyazev convened the Kyiv meeting on May 11, one day after the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) and Slidstvo.info screened their documentary about the July 2016 death of Pavel Sheremet, titled Killing Pavel.

Filmed over the course of nine months, it tries to reconstruct the hours before the bombing through exclusive footage and interviews.

One of the most intriguing assertions is that an agent or former agent of the Ukrainian Security Service (SBU), identified as Ihor Ustymenko, was at the scene when two unidentified individuals fixed the explosive to the red Subaru the night before the blast killed the 44-year-old reporter with news website Ukrayinska Pravda in downtown Kyiv early on July 20.

The filmmakers found Ustymenko with the help of a researcher from the open-source investigative group Bellingcat who managed to identify the license plate of the gray Skoda car he was driving that night. In a bizarre interview, Ustymenko admitted being at the scene but denied knowing anything about the murder or seeing the bombers walk right past him. He claimed he had been hired as private security to protect someone's children who were in the area.

Ukraine Interior Minister Arsen Avakov said on May 11 that authorities would interview OCCRP journalists and Ustymenko in light of the new information.

Sheremet's killing was the highest-profile slaying of a journalist since that of Ukrayinska Pravda's Heorhiy Gongadze in 2000.

'Matter Of Honor'

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko called Sheremet's killing "a matter of honor to take all measures to solve this crime as soon as possible." He said Ukraine would spare no resource and called for a transparent investigation by police and the security services. Experts from the FBI were even brought in to examine the remnants of the explosive device, which investigators believe had been packed with 400 to 600 grams of TNT and remotely detonated.

But 10 months on, the investigation has stalled. There has not been a single arrest, nor have any suspects been named. However, investigators believe Sheremet was murdered because of his professional activities.

The most significant evidence presented by Ukrainian investigators was security-camera footage released during a February 8 press conference. It appears to show a man and woman approaching the victim's Subaru on the street the night before the blast. The woman can be seen kneeling beside the parked car on the driver's side for around 30 seconds.

WATCH: Killing Pavel

The international Committee to Protect Journalists' regional coordinator, Nina Ognianova, said at the time that "Ukrainian officials should take this opportunity to show that journalists cannot be killed with impunity."

Investigators have presented no new findings since then.

Born in Minsk, Sheremet had lived and worked in Kyiv for 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 complained of pressure from authorities over his work.

He had also warned in his last blog post before his death that Ukrainian politicians who were ex-members of volunteer battalions that had fought separatists in eastern Ukraine could carry out a coup in Kyiv.

The car Sheremet was driving belonged to his partner, Ukrayinska Pravda owner and founding editor Olena Prytula.

After the film's May 10 screening in Kyiv, SBU spokeswoman Elena Hitlyanska confirmed in a post on Facebook that Ustymenko had worked for the agency but said he had been dismissed on April 29, 2014.

She said that if journalists had contacted the agency to ask about Ustymenko, they "wouldn't have much to say" because he was no longer employed there, and she directed questions to police.

"Remember that the criminal investigation into the murder of Pavel Sheremet was investigated by the National Police, so we recommend to seek comments from them," she added.

'Courageous, Tenacious Reporting'

The OCCRP/Slidstvo.info film also said the purported bombers returned to the scene the next morning -- possibly to remotely detonate the bomb -- then vanished after the blast. It also presented evidence alleging that Sheremet, Prytula, and Ukrayinska Pravda had been under surveillance in the weeks before the murder.

Interior Minister Arsen Avakov told the filmmakers in February that neither the SBU nor the police was behind the alleged surveillance.

Belarusian journalist Pavel Sheremet (1971-2016)
Belarusian journalist Pavel Sheremet (1971-2016)

Sheremet made a name for himself as a muckraking television reporter in Minsk in the 1990s. He was forced to move to Moscow after his arrest in 1997 while reporting on smuggling across the Belarusian-Lithuania border. Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka stripped Sheremet of Belarusian citizenship in 2010, after he had become a naturalized Russian citizen.

In 2011, Sheremet relocated to Kyiv and began full-time work for Ukrayinska Pravda. In the last year of his life, he also hosted a daily news program on Radio Vesti. Sheremet was critical of Moscow's military intervention in Crimea and eastern Ukraine but also spoke out against what he saw as failures of the pro-Western government that came to power in Kyiv in 2014.

After his death, the U.S. State Department hailed Sheremet's "courageous and tenacious reporting" as playing "a crucial role in Ukraine's democracy, reporting on issues important to the public, including corruption and governance."

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    Christopher Miller

    Christopher Miller is a correspondent based in Kyiv and covers the former Soviet republics. He can be reached at millerjchristopher@gmail.com

     

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