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Ukraine: Doubts Abound Over 'Resolution' Of Gongadze Murder

  • Askold Krushelnycky

Ukrainians this week have been puzzled by contradictory statements issued by the Interior Ministry and the Prosecutor-General's Office regarding the investigation into the murder of opposition journalist Heorhiy Gongadze. RFE/RL correspondent Askold Krushelnycky looks at the latest round of statements regarding the murder case.

Prague, 18 May 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Earlier this week (Tuesday), Ukrainian Interior Minister Yuri Smirnov announced that police had solved the murder of opposition journalist Heorhiy Gongadze.

The case of the journalist's death last autumn has become a national sensation. Allegations that Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma might be involved in the murder have led to widespread demonstrations calling for Kuchma's ouster.

But on Tuesday, Smirnov -- who as internal affairs chief controls the police -- said the killing had not been politically motivated. He said Gongadze's murderers were common criminals who themselves had later been killed. A map showing the location of Gongadze's grave had been found on one of their bodies, he added.

Smirnov went on to say those responsible for the killings of the two murderers were now themselves in custody. He also referred to the involvement of a mysterious crime boss nicknamed "Cyclops."

Smirnov said: "As [interior] minister, I consider the crime to be resolved. We have proof concerning the criminals, who have died, to our sorrow."

Smirnov's announcement, however, does not spell an end to the case. The Ukrainian Prosecutor-General's Office -- which is leading the official investigation into Gongadze's murder -- has said that the inquiry has not yet been concluded.

The Ukrainian press has reported that the Prosecutor-General's Office, in comments to the lawyer for Gongadze's mother, called Smirnov's statement "premature" and said that the matter has not yet been concluded.

Deputy Prosecutor-General Mykola Obikhod has said his office will issue a full response to Smirnov's statement at the beginning of next week.

Many opposition politicians -- as well as Gongadze's widow, Myroslava -- have called Smirnov's announcement a deliberate attempt to confuse the public and deflect attention from Kuchma's possible role in the murder.

Myroslava Gongadze says Smirnov's version of events -- which claims Gongadze was murdered by two criminals who themselves were later killed -- is, in fact, a fabrication: "Right now we're witnessing the latest in a series of announcements which, in my opinion, Internal Affairs Minister Smirnov had no right to make. [I say this] because the investigation is being conducted by the Prosecutor-General's Office, and only the Prosecutor-General's Office can say whether the matter has really been concluded and talk about the results of the investigation. Therefore, I have no reason to trust [Smirnov's] announcement. Actually, I haven't trusted him for a long time, and in the present situation I have even more reason to distrust him."

The investigation into the disappearance and murder of Gongadze has been plagued by confusion and conflicting information from the start. Gongadze disappeared from the Ukrainian capital Kyiv last September. Several weeks later a headless corpse -- later identified as his -- was found in some woods south of the city.

Gongadze had been an outspoken critic of President Kuchma, who he claimed was involved in corrupt business dealings.

A former Kuchma bodyguard then came forward with audio recordings that he claimed he had secretly made of conversations between the president and his advisers. The recordings appeared to show that Kuchma had wanted action taken to silence the outspoken journalist.

Kuchma has consistently denied the authenticity of the recordings. But his political opponents -- and thousands of ordinary Ukrainians -- were convinced the recordings proved the president's involvement in Gongadze's death. Mass demonstrations followed, with protesters calling for Kuchma's resignation.

The official investigation into Gongadze's murder has been criticized by his relatives and a number of Ukrainian politicians. Some Western governments and bodies such as the Council of Europe have also expressed doubts that the investigation is being conducted in a proper and transparent manner.

Ukrainian authorities at varying times have alleged that the corpse found in the woods outside Kyiv was not Gongadze's, and for months refused to allow the journalist's relatives to examine the remains.

Oleksandr Kryvenko, a spokesman for the opposition Forum for National Salvation, described Smirnov's version as a "fairy tale." He said it was obvious that criminals had murdered the journalist but that that in itself did not exclude a political motive. Gongadze's widow, who is now in the United States after being granted political asylum last month, said the police in the past had deliberately muddled the investigation into her husband's death and were continuing to do so now.

"The fact is that, in this matter, the prosecutor-general and the police have distinguished themselves with many statements which later have not been substantiated and where, in a normal society, they would have had to be corrected. From the very beginning there were announcements that it was not a politically motivated matter, and then that the corpse that was found had been reburied there, and so forth. The police made these announcements, and when the Prosecutor-General's Office investigated, they could not substantiate the police claims."

Ukraine's Internal Affairs Ministry was reluctant to comment on the Prosecutor-General's Office investigation into the case, which is ongoing.

An unnamed ministry spokesman said that Smirnov was not prepared to issue any more details regarding the Gongadze case.

"The minister said that he is not going to discuss the details. That's probably because the Prosecutor-General is still investigating. [There are ] probably still some outstanding matters [that] need to be cleared up."

The spokesman denied that there were any serious differences between the Internal Affairs Ministry and the Prosecutor-General's Office.

"I can't make any conclusions. You as a journalist have to draw your own conclusions. There has been a concrete announcement by Smirnov. As for the Prosecutor-General's Office, I don't know, because I don't work there."

Next week several lawmakers have said they will address the ministry statement during a session of the Ukrainian parliament.

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