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Ukraine: Prosecutors To Probe Murder Of Gongadze Witness

The Ukrainian Prosecutor-General's Office has announced it is investigating the murder of a witness in the Heorhiy Gongadze case. Gongadze, a journalist, was killed in 2000 under questionable circumstances. The case was never solved but suspicions remain that the journalist's murder could have been ordered at the highest level. Correspondent Askold Krushelnycky broke the story in Britain's "The Independent" newspaper and files this report for RFE/RL.

Kyiv, 24 June 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Confidential documents from the Ukrainian Prosecutor-General's Office indicate that senior officials may have tried to stifle the investigation into the murder of journalist Heorhiy Gongadze.

The documents, leaked recently by Ukrainian law enforcement officials, allege that current Prosecutor-General Hennadiy Vasilyev may have tried to block the investigation. The documents indicate the cover-up may have involved the killing
of a key witness in custody.

Gongadze disappeared in September 2000 and his headless corpse was discovered weeks later. Gongadze had angered many in government with articles published on his website on alleged corruption in the highest echelons of government, including the office of President Leonid Kuchma.

Gongadze's friends and relatives have accused Kuchma and security authorities of being involved in the murder. The president and other officials have denied this.

The Prosecutor-General's Office this week said it was beginning an investigation into the death of the witness, a former undercover policeman with the Interior Ministry. The authorities also announced they had a confession from a convicted killer, who they named only as "Mister K," that he murdered Gongadze.

Opposition politicians and other critics are skeptical about the claim to have apprehended Gongadze's killer. They point out that on a number of previous occasions the authorities claim to have caught the killers, but the claims were later shown to be unsubstantiated.

The leader of the Socialist Party, Oleksandr Moroz, like Gongadze's relatives, colleagues, and many other opposition politicians, is convinced the murder was ordered by the president or close associates. Moroz hopes the new revelations may push forward investigations by a parliamentary commission into Gongadze's death.

"I don't think what is contained there is a big secret to us, it's true. And the fact that the pro-presidential majority in parliament constantly blocks information to the parliamentary commission [investigating Gongadze's murder] headed by Hryhoriy Omelchenko is yet another confirmation [of the allegations]," Moroz said.

The commission head, Omelchenko, says he has documents in his possession that support suspicions of Kuchma's involvement. Last week, his committee recommended criminal proceedings against the president, but he says he doubts this will happen while Kuchma is in power.

"It will only be possible to investigate this matter objectively under those conditions when the investigator's prison cell contains today's president of Ukraine, Leonid Danylovych Kuchma," Omelchenko said.

The leaked confidential documents include copies of extensive interrogations of Ihor Honcharov, a former undercover policeman with the Interior Ministry. Honcharov was arrested last year for working with racketeers.

Honcharov said Gongadze's abduction and murder were conducted by gangsters at the bidding of the Interior Ministry. He said the minister, Yuriy Kravchenko, ordered Gongadze's killing on behalf of the president.

In his statements, Honcharov repeatedly expressed fear he would be murdered and that the killing would be portrayed as suicide or fatal illness. Only weeks later, on 1 August 2003, he died under questionable circumstances.

The official version was that Honcharov died of illness and was quickly cremated. But an autopsy and tests performed for the government by six experts and completed last November show Honcharov was severely beaten and injected with a drug called "Thiopental."

The head of an organization that defends the rights of journalists around the world, the International Federation of Journalists, Aidan White, says the new revelations may mean the mystery about who killed Gongadze is unraveling.

"After years of willful political neglect, incompetent investigation, and official bungling, the truth is beginning to emerge and the fact is that President Kuchma and his government must face up to their responsibility," White says.

But he was concerned that the investigation did not get lost in politics: "I don't want the case of Heorhiy Gongadze just to become a political football in the political games that are being played in Ukraine."

He said justice could only be delivered after a fresh, independent, and transparent investigation.