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Ukraine: Involvement In Murders Added To Charges Against Former Premier

  • Kathleen Moore

Ukraine's prosecutor-general is accusing former Prime Minister Pavlo Lazarenko of ordering two contract killings in the mid-1990s. As RFE/RL correspondent Kathleen Knox reports, it's the most serious allegation yet against Lazarenko, who is being held in the United States on money-laundering charges.

Prague, 4 September 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Ukraine's prosecutor-general announced yesterday that he has gathered enough evidence to indict Pavlo Lazarenko for two contract killings. The news should come as little surprise to anyone following the fortunes of the former Ukrainian prime minister.

Senior parliamentarian Viktor Omelich says his ethics committee received a letter from the prosecutor-general's office saying Lazarenko should be arrested on suspicion of ordering the murders of two members of parliament in the mid-1990s. Three hit men arrested for carrying out the killings reportedly testified that Lazarenko ordered them.

Evhen Scherban and his wife were gunned down by unknown assassins as they disembarked from an airplane at Donetsk airport in March 1996. Two years later, Vadim Hetman, a departmental head in Ukraine's interbank currency exchange, was shot dead in the elevator of his apartment block.

Mykhailo Potebenko, Ukraine's prosecutor-general, had been dropping hints of late that Lazarenko would be implicated in both killings. Last month, Potebenko said he had evidence that an unnamed member of parliament had ordered the murders. In a newspaper interview two weeks ago, he named Lazarenko as that deputy.

In response, Lazarenko -- who is in detention in the United States on charges of laundering or unlawfully receiving more than $200 million during the same time period -- wrote an angry letter, denying any involvement in the killings.

Yulia McGuffey has been following the Lazarenko affair for the website "Korrespondent.net." One of many questions the case raises, McGuffey says, is whether members of parliament need to strip Lazarenko of his parliamentary immunity before he can be arrested:

"The thing is, he already has been stripped of his immunity once, in 1999, and some observers are calling the prosecutor-general's behavior a farce. Why strip someone of his immunity when he doesn't have any?"

The fresh accusations lengthen an already sizable list of charges and convictions against the former prime minister. Last year, a Swiss court convicted him of money laundering, giving him an 18-month suspended sentence. By then, Lazarenko had already been detained in the U.S. after entering without a valid visa. Investigations begun there led to his being held in federal custody in California. Lazarenko is accused of trying to launder $21 million -- allegedly the proceeds of extortion and fraudulent schemes -- by channeling it to the U.S. through accounts in Switzerland and Antigua. Authorities also claim he received more than $200 million unlawfully.

In July, the U.S. attorney general's office in California said a grand jury had returned a second superceding indictment against Lazarenko, adding wire fraud to the list of charges. In all, Lazarenko is charged in 53 counts.

Lazarenko has pleaded not guilty and says the original indictment was timed to coincide with a visit by then U.S. President Bill Clinton to Ukraine. Lazarenko was a close ally of President Leonid Kuchma and led the government from May 1996 to July 1997, when Kuchma sacked him.

McGuffey says that this background of infighting may provide an answer as to why the new claims have popped up now. She also says the position of Ukraine's prosecutor-general is precarious after his own recent scandal and that these new allegations against Lazarenko could be seen as an attempt to save the authority of the office. McGuffey brought up a third reason why the charges against Lazarenko may be being made now:

"Then you can't forget that in August, one of the MPs interested in corruption, [Hrihoriy] Omelchenko, said that Kuchma received from Lazarenko a bribe that was transferred to accounts in a company where Kuchma's daughter works. So the announcement can be seen as retaliation by the Prosecutor-General's Office against these statements that reflected badly on Kuchma's reputation."

She says Lazarenko is unlikely to be answering the new accusations against him in person any time soon as authorities in the U.S. continue to pursue their case against him.

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