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Ukraine: Suspect In Gongadze Murder Dies In Police Custody

  • Askold Krushelnycky

There has been another twist in the drama involving Ukraine's most politically charged murder -- the nearly four-year-old killing of opposition journalist Heorhiy Gongadze -- after a suspect in the investigation died in police custody.

Prague, 6 August 2003 (RFE/RL) -- An independent Ukrainian journalist group, the Institute for Mass Information (IMI), yesterday reported that a person regarded as a key suspect in a long-running murder case had himself died in police custody.

Ihor Honcharov, an alleged gang leader, had been in custody since his arrest in May on charges of extortion and murder.

Ukrainian Prosecutor-General Svyatoslav Piskun earlier this year said he believed that Honcharov was linked to the murder of journalist Heorhiy Gongadze.

Gongadze, an outspoken critic of President Leonid Kuchma and government corruption, disappeared in late 1999. His headless corpse was later discovered, triggering one of Ukraine's biggest post-Soviet scandals.

Nearly four years later, no one has been charged in the murder. A former bodyguard of Kuchma -- who secretly recorded the president -- released excerpts which implicated Kuchma in Gongadze's disappearance. But Kuchma has steadfastly denied any link to the journalist's disappearance or death.

Ukraine's political opposition and independent journalists -- as well as many Western governments and groups -- had accused state investigators of deliberately blocking the probe because it might implicate senior government officials, possibly including the president. But last year investigators identified 13 members of a criminal gang they said was led by Honcharov and which might have knowledge of the murder.

All 13 were apparently former policemen and intelligence officers known as "werewolves" -- the term for former police officials who have turned to crime.

Prosecutor-General Piskun said he believed it was likely the so-called "Honcharov band" killed Gongadze. Honcharov was scheduled to give evidence about the case later this month.

But now Honcharov is dead. A Ukrainian police official who did not want to be named confirmed that Honcharov died on 1 August, apparently while being transferred by ambulance from jail to a hospital. He said the cause of death was being investigated. IMI, which works closely with the France-based journalists' defense group Reporters Without Borders, says Honcharov was cremated on 3 August, eliminating any chance of an independent autopsy.

According to IMI, Honcharov had passed a 17-page handwritten letter to the group to be opened in the event of his death. IMI member Alla Lazareva says the organization has frequently reported on the Gongadze case and that is why she thinks Honcharov passed the letter to them.

IMI says in the letter Honcharov claimed to have information about Gongadze's killers, including audio recordings and a confession that he said he had hidden but was willing to reveal to investigators in the presence of independent witnesses. Honcharov also predicted he would be murdered by an official -- whose name he gives -- and that the death would be presented as suicide or illness.

Lazareva says the IMI's first priority now is to establish whether the letter is genuine. "We're not certain yet because we are unable to carry out detailed tests to confirm its authenticity," she says.

To explain why IMI has already published some excerpts from the letter on its website, Lazareva says, "Our position was this -- we obtained this information, we thought that it was of importance to the public and therefore we publicized what we had -- although we blacked out some names, because since there is a presumption of innocence until he is proved to be a criminal, one shouldn't refer to him as such."

She says the IMI "does not have the technical capability to check the authenticity of Honcharov's handwriting. But experts can do this. That's why there are criminologists and specialists at the Prosecutor-General's Office who are obliged by law to carry out this work and to compare Honcharov's handwriting samples taken while he was giving evidence and being kept in jail. They can say whether he wrote this or not."

Lazareva says IMI today handed a copy of the letter to Deputy Chief Prosecutor Viktor Shokin, who was due to question Honcharov later this month.

"As far as we know, we are not the only ones that have a copy of this letter. A few other people have copies," Lazareva says.

She says the Prosecutor-General's Office has promised to keep IMI informed of developments.

"Perhaps now that the Prosecutor-General's Office is involved, the cause of death will be investigated. At least I hope so," she says. "Because either this person [Honcharov] really did make all these statements, in which case it's a truly horrible story, or it's a fake and therefore, we need to know who did it and why."

But the American author of a book about the Gongadze killing, Jaroslav Koshiw, doubts that investigators will solve the murder. He says that in the past, investigators have named and blamed criminals for Gongadze's death but have subsequently had to admit they were wrong.

"So really, periodically what we're getting from the authorities is a pretend investigation suggesting to the population that they're on top [abreast of developments], that they are looking for the killers and so on -- when really they are not bothering with an investigation," Koshiw says.

Koshiw's book -- "Beheaded: The Killing of a Journalist," is a comprehensive analysis of documents, evidence, and investigations by the Ukrainian authorities as well as journalists into the Gongadze case. Koshiw says he has no doubt that President Kuchma and other high officials are connected to Gongadze's death.

"There is more than ample evidence for a trial of the president and his associates who took part in the kidnapping and then the death of Gongadze," he says.

Koshiw says he believes the accusations against Honcharov were fabricated and the authorities have no desire to get at the truth. He says that if Honcharov was really cremated, that displays either poor judgment or an attempt to prevent the true cause of death being proved.

"It shows to me the tremendous irresponsibility by the authorities, in this case the police, to so quickly cremate somebody who died in mysterious circumstances and who they were suggesting might have been a possible witness," Koshiw says. "They create a bizarre atmosphere that helps rumors."

Koshiw believes the truth about the Gongadze murder will only emerge if Ukraine gets a government that really wants to build a state based on law and order.

The website for the Institute for Mass Information can be found at http://www.imi.org.ua. For Jaroslav Koshiw, it is http://www.artemiapress.co.uk.

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