Formerly The NIS Observed, An Analytical Review
Institute for the Study of Conflict, Ideology & Policy
Boston University

By Tammy Lynch

On 16 September 2000, Ukrainian journalist Heorhiy Gongadze disappeared. Two months later, his decapitated body was discovered in a forest not far from Kyiv. Just one month after that, Socialist Party leader Oleksandr Moroz released recordings on which then President Leonid Kuchma reportedly was heard ordering the journalist’s abduction. The ensuing attempt by Ukraine’s authorities to deny their involvementin his death and the lack of any credible investigation of the case provided Ukraine’s political opposition with an anthem. It sparked the country’s largest emonstrations since 1991 and pointed Ukraine on a path toward revolution.

On 1 March 2005, after years of protests in Gongadze’s name and an orange revolution that embraced his cause, new President Viktor Yushchenko proudly announced that “the murder of Gongadze has been solved. … The former regime protected the assassins.” Now, he said, the country must “find out who ordered and organized” the killing. (1) But today, over 5 years after Gongadze’s death, and almost one year after Yushchenko’s triumphant announcement, the organizers of the crime remain free, the trial of “the assassins” drags on with numerous postponements, and his family still waits for justice.

Trial inches forward, behind closed doors

There has been some progress. In August 2005, three former police colonels were arrested and charged with abducting and killing Gongadze. Another suspect and the reported leader of the men, General Oleksiy Pukach, fled the country.

Trail proceedings began against the three colonels on 19 December. At that time, during a preliminary hearing, a Kyiv court decreed that substantive arguments would begin on 9 January “in public.” (2)

On 9 January, however, the tenor of events changed. “The journalists of the Ukrainian mass media who were going to cover the hearing on the murder of Heorhiy Gongadze … are demanding that a criminal case should be opened over the situation in which they were prevented from carrying out their professional duties,” reported Ukrainian television 5 Kanal. “The guards who accompanied the suspects rudely pushed the journalists out of the courtroom, and several policemen resorted to rubber batons.” (3)

The trial then was quickly adjourned for two weeks after one of the defendants complained of “elevated blood pressure.”

Not long after, in response to complaints from the defendants, the court altered its earlier ruling and said that all trial testimony would be closed to the public and media. “Providing media with access to court sessions may produce negative consequences, [and] impede a comprehensive, full and unbiased investigation of the case,” presiding Judge Iryna Hryhoryeva announced. (4) The State Prosecutor’s Office supported the ruling, suddenly suggesting that certain evidence dealt with state secrets. “There are certain secret documents and individuals who cannot be questioned in public,” Prosecutor General Oleksandr Medvedko said. (5)

However, representatives of the family disputed this statement, saying that they had clearly been informed by the prosecutor when examining the case file that it did not contain anything categorized as a state secret.

What about the organizers?

The court’s newfound hesitance to allow media access to the trial developed on what would have been the first day of testimony; before the trial opened, Gongadze’s widow Myroslava and a representative of his mother Lesya gave strong statements demanding that not only the direct murderers, but also the organizers of the crime be put on trial.

They also declared publicly their intention to make full use of a provision in Ukrainian law that allows family members of victims to request that the presiding judge call witnesses – witnesses who may or may not be called by the prosecutor.

“I don’t think this [trial] is enough,” Myroslava Gongadze said, “because these people had no personal motives for killing Heorhiy. They were carrying out a criminal order.” While the defendants, she said, must answer for their crimes, since they did not refuse to carry out their order, “the next step will be when the organizers of this crime are brought to justice. Their identities are known and they must be punished,” she said, referring to the “Gongadze tapes” released by Moroz in 2000. (6)

On these tapes, which have been authenticated by several laboratories around the world (including the FBI), a voice said to be Kuchma’s repeatedly asks for an update on “what to do” about Gongadze, and several times urges that he be kidnapped and “thrown to the Chechens.” Former Interior Minister Yuriy Kravchenko responds that his “team” will “do everything you want.” (Not incidentally, Kravchenko was reported by authorities to have committed suicide by shooting himself twice in the head the day after Yushchenko’s announcement that the case was solved.) (7)

However, in spite of this evidence, there has been little attempt to question Kuchma about this crime. Myroslava Gongadze suggests that perhaps the resolve to bring the organizers to justice does not exist. “It looks like there is still no political will to hold responsible those who ordered the killing,” she said. (8)

The European Court of Human Rights, in an 8 November 2005 decision on the case of Myroslava Gongadze vs. Ukraine, seemed to support this statement. The decision found that, until December 2004, the authorities had violated the European Convention of Human Rights by failing to investigate the case adequately, causing undue suffering and denying effective remedy for the crime.

However, the European Court also took note of the lack of response in 2005 to a detailed Ukrainian parliamentary investigation on the case “which concluded that the kidnap and murder of Mr Gongadze had been organized by former President Kuchma and Mr Kravchenko and that the current speaker of Parliament, Mr V. Lytvyn, and a member of parliament, Mr L. Derkach, were involved in the crimes.” The report notes that the parliamentary report was transferred to the Prosecutor General’s Office in September 2005, but no action was taken by that office. (9)

The conduct of the trial would seem to support these concerns, as prosecutors appear to use every tool to limit the scope of the inquiry only to the three men. Since 9 January, no substantive testimony has been given. At least three times the hearing has been adjourned because of an expressed “illness” of a defendant, and adjournments have generally lasted at least one week.

This has led Myroslava Gongadze to suggest that an attempt is perhaps being made to postpone testimony until after the 26 March parliamentary election in order to protect those whom she and Lesya Gongadze will call as witnesses.

“We intend to invite many witnesses who will be able to shed a lot of light on this case,” she said on 9 January. (10) Later, she emphasized that “a number of the witnesses are members of election lists.” Therefore, after 26 March, most of these individuals will have either extended or received new parliamentary immunity. (11)

Clearly, the murder itself and the ensuing five year “cover-up” has touched a number of major Ukrainian politicians in some way.

Lesya Gongadze has already officially requested that Kuchma, Parliamentary Speaker Volodymyr Lytvyn (heard on the tape encouraging Kuchma to have Kravchenko “handle” Gongadze), former Security Service Head Leonid Derkach, Supreme Court Chief Justice Vasyl Malyarenko and President Viktor Yushchenko testify. (12) Although her attorney makes it clear that he in no way believes Yushchenko is involved in the Gongadze case itself, it is likely that Andriy Fedur would like to ask Yushchenko about a reported agreement on immunity with Kuchma regarding this crime.

Judge Iryna Hryhoryeva has so far refused Lesya Gongadze’s requests for witnesses, but promised to reconsider them later. Myroslava Gongadze, meanwhile, believes that the judge will have to allow at least some of the witnesses.

Full circle?
On 25 January, two of the three defendants pled guilty to all charges against them. There is little concern, based on the evidence seen by the family, that these confessions were forced. Under Ukrainian law, the trial will continue in order to determine appropriate sentences and to determine the guilt or innocence of the third defendant (who pled guilty to several lesser charges).

But although three out of four of the direct killers of Heorhiy Gongadze now will likely spend the rest of their lives in prison, is this the justice that Ukrainians have fought for since 2000?

The EU”s Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE), which has been one of the most vocal international organizations on the issue throughout the years, doesn’t think so. PACE’s questioning of the investigation in October – after its initial welcoming of President Yushchenko’s rhetoric – must have been a painful point for a government courting Europe. “Five years after the disappearance and murder of the journalist Gongadze,” PACE wrote in its 5 October resolution, “the Assembly is dissatisfied that after the indictment in March 2005 of the alleged direct perpetrators of the murder, the investigation of the case has been stalled, in particular as regards the prosecution of those who ordered and organised this crime.” The resolution notes prosecutorial action which “is seen as a step towards excluding from the prosecution the masterminds and organizers.” (13)

If PACE’s representatives hoped that their resolution would alter the course of the investigation, they are no doubt disappointed, as are many Ukrainians who stood on Independence Square in November of 2004.

Throughout the Orange Revolution, Ukrainians loudly demanded – “Bandits to jail” and “Murderers to jail” – and it’s clear they weren’t talking about three police colonels. But in February of 2006, despite increased press freedom, and despite greater government transparency, the Gongadze case is, in many ways, where it was in 2004.

The organizers of the murder are technically unknown, yet the names are discussed by everyone involved in the case. Those who directly committed the crime will go to prison, but likely without being made to shed any light on their actions. The organizers of the crime continue enjoying their lives, seemingly secure in their freedom. The president of the country repeatedly speaks of justice, but does little to ensure that it will occur in this particular case. And the family of Gongadze is left isolated, wondering why, after five years and a revolution, they still cannot find justice for Heorhiy.

Source Notes:
(1) Agence France Presse, 1713 GMT, 1 Mar 05; via Lexis-Nexis.
(2) Interfax-Ukraine, 1534 GMT, 19 Dec 05; BBC Monitoring, via ProQuest.
(3) TV 5 Kanal, 1300 CET, 9 Jan 06; via ProQuest.
(4) ICTV, 1645 CET, 23 Jan 06; via ProQuest.
(5) UNIAN News Agency, 1201 CET, 31 Jan 06; via ProQuest.
(6) Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty Ukrainian Service and Newsroom, 9 Jan 06.
(7) See and search for “Gongadze tapes” to read transcripts of Kuchma’s conversations.
(8) Agence France Presse, 1348 GMT, 9 Sept 05; via Lexis-Nexis.
(9) Chamber Judgement, European Court of Human Rights, 599a(2005), 8 Nov 05.
(10) Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty, Op. Cit.
(11) 13 Feb 06
(12) ICTV, 1645 CET, 23 Jan 06; BBC Monitoring, via ProQuest.
(13) PACE Resolution 1466, 28th Sitting, 5 Oct 05.

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