Ukrainian authorities are investigating documents and audio recordings that appear to reveal a plot to murder Pavel Sheremet, an investigative journalist who was killed in a car bombing.
Ukrainian police confirmed Monday that they had received documents and recordings from 2012 in which anonymous people discuss a plot to kill Sheremet. The recordings have been passed to an expert for analysis.
The news website EUObserver alleged that the recordings are of Vadim Zaitsev, who at the time was chair of the Belarusian KGB, discussing plans in April 2012 with members of a special unit to kill perceived enemies of President Aleksandr Lukashenko, including Sheremet, who used to live and work in the country.
In a transcript of the recordings, published in English, a voice alleged to be Zaitsev's says: “We should be working Sheremet, who is a massive pain in the arse. We'll plant [a bomb] and so on and this [expletive] rat will be taken down in [expletive] pieces, legs in one direction, arms in the other direction. If everything [looks like] natural causes it won’t get in people’s minds in the same way.”
Sheremet, an award-winning investigative journalist who reported for the independent news website Ukrainska Pravda, was killed in a car bombing in Kyiv in July 2016. Ukraine’s then-president, Petro Poroshenko, said at the time that he believed the attack was an attempt to destabilize the country.
Three people are on trial in Ukraine in connection with the killing. All three deny wrongdoing. Authorities have not determined who ordered the hit.
Neither the Belarus Foreign Ministry nor its embassy in Washington responded to VOA’s emails requesting comment.
Audio allegedly of Belarusian secret services discussing an attack on Sheremet was a shock to the journalist’s colleagues, Sevgil Musayeva, editor in chief of Ukrainska Pravda, told VOA. If found to be authentic, the audio would show foreign governments are able to work easily within Ukraine, she said.
Musayeva said that while the audio was a surprise, she always believed that Russia or Belarus might have been behind the killing.
"We have never rejected the version that foreign intelligence services were involved in Pavel's murder,” Musayeva said, referring to Russia and Belarus.
Musayeva said Sheremet worked in Russia and had a connection with Boris Nemtsov, an opposition politician and critic of President Vladimir Putin, who was shot dead close to the Kremlin in February 2015.
“This Russian connection could have been used as a factor of destabilization in Ukraine,” Musayeva said. “But there is another story, a story related to Belarus. I can say unequivocally that Aleksandr Lukashenko perceived Pavel Sheremet almost as an enemy. At one time he took away his citizenship and it was a direct instruction.”
Tensions between Sheremet and the Belarusian authorities had existed since the 1990s because of the journalist’s work, Musayeva said.
Sheremet reported critically on the Belarusian president, and in 1998, he and a colleague were handed a suspended sentence for illegally crossing a border after they reported on smuggling.
When he came to power in 2019, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said investigating Sheremet’s murder would be a priority.
Anton Gerashchenko, Ukraine’s deputy minister of internal affairs, confirmed to VOA that investigators received the new evidence in December.
"The Ministry of Internal Affairs received information from Ukrainian Foreign Intelligence Service that a Belarusian intelligence officer, who has been living outside Belarus for eight years, has important information: audio recordings about a possible Belarusian connection in the assassination of Pavel Sheremet,” Gerashchenko told VOA.
Investigators looked into the case and signed permits to question the officer, Gerashchenko said.
But the minister emphasized a possible Belarus involvement is just one avenue of investigation.
"Another version is a Russian connection because it is well-known that Pavel Sheremet had certain historical connections with the Russian Federation,” Gerashchenko said.
“That's why such versions of foreign involvement have been in consideration for a long time, and this new fact can help us to determine which of these versions will prove itself," Gerashchenko said.
The Russian Foreign Ministry in 2016 denied accusations of involvement, The Moscow Times reported.
Musayeva, of Ukrainska Pravda, said that although three Ukrainians were on trial for their alleged involvement in the killing, the case against them was questionable.
“The investigation supported the version that the murder was aimed to destabilize the situation in Ukraine. If we are talking about the possible connection with the recordings and the Belarusian secret services, then this is about the threat to the life of Aleksandr Lukashenko's political opponents, and if we listen to the words of the recorded messages, this is about the public message for the Belarusian opposition, for the Belarusian people," she said.
The audio recordings show that journalists working in Ukraine continue to be under threat from internal and external forces, Musayeva said.
"Until all involved perpetrators and instigators are found, the perpetrators of the high-profile murders of journalists, no journalist in Ukraine can feel safe,” she said.
This story originated in VOA’s Ukrainian Service. Some information is from Reuters.