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Ukraine: Gongadze Killers Confess, But Who Ordered Murder?

  • Jeremy Bransten --> Heorhiy Gongadze Ukraine's Prosecutor-General Svyatoslav Piskun says two detained police colonels have pleaded guilty to murdering investigative journalist Heorhiy Gongadze five years ago. Piskun told national television on 13 June that the confessions prove the investigation is moving in the right direction. But Piskun also said he is certain the officers were not acting on their own. Who bears ultimate responsibility for ordering the murder remains unclear. Will the case ever be resolved?

Prague, 14 June 2005 (RFE/RL) -- When President Viktor Yushchenko came into office this year, he promised a fresh start for Ukraine.

Resolving the case of murdered journalist Heorhiy Gongadze was seen as a litmus test for the new administration. That's because Gongadze's killing -- for many Ukrainians -- had come to symbolize the rot within the administration of former President Leonid Kuchma.

Gongadze, founder of the "Ukrainskaya Pravda" website, was well known for his articles about alleged high-level corruption. He was abducted in Kyiv, in September 2000. His decapitated body was later found in a forest outside the capital.

Weeks later, recordings said to be made by one of Kuchma's bodyguards were released in public and played in parliament. The so-called "Melnychenko tapes" shocked many who heard them.
Gongadze's widow has said that until her husband's murder is fully explained, Ukraine has no hope of developing "into a normal country."

On the recordings, a voice resembling Kuchma's tells another man, who sounds like the then-interior minister Yuri Kravchenko, to have Gongadze "removed and thrown to the Chechens."

Kuchma denied the authenticity of the tapes. But the lack of any progress in the investigation only fueled suspicions that Kuchma's conscience was not clear.

Last March, a break in the case seemed at hand with the announcement that Gongadze's killers -- two police colonels -- had been detained.

On 13 June, Ukraine's Prosecutor-General Svyatoslav Piskun said the two men had confessed to the killing. But as Piskun admitted, investigators seem no closer to resolving the central question in the case: Who ordered Gongadze's killing?

The lack of an answer is fueling speculation in Kyiv that the truth may never be uncovered. As RFE/RL analyst Jan Maksymiuk explains, some people are wondering if this may have been the price for Ukraine's peaceful Orange Revolution.

"There are a lot of unconfirmed rumors that Yushchenko made a deal with Kuchma during the 'Orange Revolution' -- that in exchange for a peaceful transition from one regime to another, he would try to shield Kuchma from any possible lawsuits, including the Gongadze case," Maksymiuk said.

These rumors have never been proven. But the fact that Kuchma continues to lead an undisturbed existence in Kyiv and that Yushchenko recently pronounced the Gongadze case "solved" appears to indicate the investigation may end with only the conviction of the killers. That should be seen as a partial victory, says Maksymiuk. But it would stop short of what many had hoped for.

"Several months ago, Yushchenko declared that the case was 'solved.' So, he badly needs a trial and he needs convictions and I'm sure there will be guilty parties and there will be such convictions," Maksymiuk said.

That is likely to happen in July, when Ukraine's prosecutor-general says he wants the confessed killers to appear in court.

As for the broader picture, former Interior Minister Yuri Kravchenko, whose voice was alleged to be on the Melnychenko tapes, could have been a key witness. But he was found dead of gunshot wounds in March at his country house outside Kyiv, just before he was due to speak to investigators. His death was ruled a suicide.

Another key player in the puzzle is Mykola Melnychenko himself, who along with Gongadze's wife, has also found refuge in the United States. Ukrainian investigators say that in order for his tapes to be considered as evidence, Melnychenko must return home to answer investigators' questions.

Sergei Taran, of the Kyiv-based Institute of Mass Information, tells RFE/RL that Melnychenko appears to fear for his safety and has so far not been forthcoming.

"He has announced contradictory intentions. Representatives of various international organizations, including us, have tried to get in touch with him. But he refuses any contact that could allow him to clearly express his position to the international community and citizens of Ukraine. I believe he does not want to tell the whole truth about how exactly the tapes were made and about what structures stand behind him and cooperated with him," Taran said.

Gongadze's widow, who now lives in the United States, has said that until her husband's murder is fully explained, Ukraine has no hope of developing "into a normal country."

(RFE/RL's Russian Service contributed to this report)