Senior Earhart Fellow at Boston University’s Institute for the Study of Conflict, Ideology and Policy.
Ukraine’s Orange Revolution was commemorated quietly last week. President Viktor Yushchenko observed the occasion with a short, somber address to the nation.
In his speech, the president acknowledged the disillusionment expressed by many just two years into his term, but asked for support and patience. “I appreciate every bit of current success and know every mistake,” he said.
Yushchenko went on to praise the country’s economic growth and increased freedoms, while calling for new programs to reduce poverty. But he ignored the main issue that had first galvanized Ukraine’s protest movement – the murder of Georgiy Gongadze.
In November 2000, investigative journalist Georgiy Gongadze’s 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 case provided Ukraine’s political opposition with a cause. It sparked the country’s largest demonstrations since 1991 and pointed Ukraine on a path toward revolution.
During the Orange Revolution, signs calling for “Justice for Georgiy” were common on Independence Square. Demonstrators held posters with Gongadze’s photo, and one of the first tents on the Square was a memorial to the slain journalist. When protestors chanted “Murderers to Jail,” they were referring largely to Gongadze’s killers.
Soon after taking office, President Yushchenko announced that the Gongadze case would be one of his priorities. “I regard the investigation of the death of Gongadze as a matter of honor for me and my team,” he said. On March 1, he revealed that several suspects had been detained and would be charged with carrying out the murder. But, he said, “The main task now is to get to the most important thing: who organized and ordered the murder.”
That was 20 months ago, and no progress has been made on this “main task.”
It is commendable that Yushchenko’s administration moved quickly to arrest those who carried out the killing. This is particularly true since the arrests pointed directly to the involvement of the Interior Ministry. The three suspects now on trial all worked as part of the Ministry’s intelligence unit. All of the suspects have confessed, and recently testified in court about the circumstances of the murder. A fourth suspect, General Oleksiy Pukach, who led the intelligence unit, is being sought. The trial continues in the case of the two confessed murderers in order to determine sentencing, which will be at the discretion of the judge.
Gongadze’s widow Myroslava suggests that completing the trial, even after the confessions, is essential. “These people had no personal motives for killing Georgiy,” she said. In other words, they did not organize the murder. Therefore, she hopes to use the trial to shed light on who may have planned the killing. She has a difficult road ahead.
While Prosecutor-General Oleksandr Medvedko recently told parliament that his office continues to investigate the case, it appears little political will exists to name those who ordered Gongadze’s murder. Even more, there appears to be little will to bring to justice those who apparently worked for years to undermine the investigation.
On Nov. 8 2005, the European Court of Human Rights ruled on a complaint filed by Myroslava Gongadze in 2002. After spending months examining significant evidence submitted by both Gongadze and the Ukrainian government, the court ruled that during the investigation, authorities “were more preoccupied with proving the lack of involvement of high-level state officials in the case than by discovering the truth about the circumstances of the disappearance and death of the applicant’s husband.” Moreover, the court noted “serious doubts as to the genuine wish of the authorities under the previous government to investigate the case thoroughly.”
The court ordered monetary compensation of 100,000 euros to Myroslava Gongadze and her two children. The family fled Ukraine in 2001. In separate reports, the Council of Europe urged the Yushchenko administration to follow up on the findings of this case by investigating the alleged “cover up” that occurred prior to his term of office.
However, in a terse letter to Myroslava Gongadze sent one month ago, Ukraine’s Justice Department officially stated that the case surrounding the European Court ruling had been closed. Compensation was paid, but the department did not respond to allegations of investigatory misconduct.
At the same time, Myroslava Gongadze’s attorney and at least one witness in the Gongadze trial have been victims of curious criminal activity. In September, attorney Valentina Telychenko saw her car vandalized three times. First, her tires were slashed. Then, the grill was removed from the front of her car. And finally, her car alarm was disabled. Although no one has been charged for these incidents, Telychenko believes that they are connected to her work in the trial. Her car was known, she said, and parked directly in front of the court house. She believes someone was trying to make her “unstable” and “afraid.”
One month later, a former coworker of Georgiy Gongadze returned home to find her bedroom ransacked. Nothing was stolen, and the only room disturbed was hers. Earlier, the coworker had testified that she possessed phone records possibly showing who had made threats against Gongadze in the days before his murder. She can no longer locate those records.
As these incidents occurred, the Prosecutor-General’s Office completely replaced the members of the “investigative group” examining the case – which now includes 40 huge files of witness statements and documents – significantly disrupting continuity. The new investigators are just now beginning to examine the case, according to Telychenko.
But perhaps most disturbingly, several politicians are privately questioning the identification of Gongadze’s body, suggesting that remains recently found in Slovakia may be the journalist.
Georgiy’s wife and coworkers have no doubt about the identity of the body, pointing out that it was confirmed through several different DNA tests – including one by the United States FBI. They also note that X-Rays showing several pre-existing bone injuries to Gongadze matched those of the body recovered in September 2000.
If doubt can be thrown on the identification, however, the authorities will have the right to close the current trial and open a brand new investigation. The prospect is chilling. And yet, there has been little comment from politicians who previously led protests in Gongadze’s name.
In fact, despite years of protest, the confession of two murderers, and numerous international inquiries, the investigation into those who ordered Georgiy Gongadze’s execution appears stalled. The journalist whose death ignited the first protests against Ukraine’s repressive government continues to wait for justice.
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