Heorhiy Gongadze in 2000
Prague, 2 March 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Ukraine's prosecutor-general says two senior police officers were arrested in connection with the 2000 murder of journalist Heorhiy Gongadze.
Prosecutor-General Svyatoslav Piskun said the two officers are police colonels.
Yesterday, Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko announced that authorities have solved the Gongadze murder case, and accused former President Leonid Kuchma's government of covering up the case.
"The killers of Heorhiy Gongadze have been found and arrested," Yushchenko said yesterday, quickly adding that the "former regime acted as the umbrella, protecting the killers." Interfax reported that Yushchenko pointed to former Prosecutor-General Hennadiy Vasilyev as a man "whose mission was not to solve this case."
For four and one-half years, Ukrainian law enforcement agencies were unable, unwilling, or forbidden to find the persons responsible for the killing of Gongadze, an Internet journalist whose website "Ukrayinska pravda" had been exposing corruption at the highest levels of the Ukrainian government.
Gongadze disappeared on the night of 16 September 2000 and was never seen alive again. In November that year, a badly decomposed, headless corpse was found buried in a narrow trench in a village outside Kyiv. Belated DNA tests proved the corpse to be Gongadze's.
Later that month, the head of the Socialist Party, Oleksandr Moroz, told a session of parliament that he was in possession of recordings made in the offices of then President Leonid Kuchma by a member of his security detail, Major Mykola Melnychenko. The recordings, Moroz said, strongly indicated that Kuchma was involved in planning Gongadze's abduction. In parliament, Moroz played the tapes, which appeared to be recordings of Kuchma talking to a person identified as then Interior Minister Yuriy Kravchenko and telling Kravchenko, among other things, to have "Gongadze removed and thrown to the Chechens."
A voice believed to be Kravchenko's is heard telling Kuchma that his "Eagles" are ready to do anything to Gongadze that Kuchma orders them to.
The "Melnychenko tapes," as they came to be called, sparked the gravest political crisis of Kuchma's presidency. Hours upon hours of conversations appeared to reveal wrongdoings at the very top of the government. These revelations led to the "Ukraine without Kuchma" movement and eventually to the Orange Revolution of 2004.
From the very beginning of the "Kuchmagate" scandal, as the Ukrainian press dubbed it, Kuchma denied ever having spoken to Kravchenko and others about Gongadze and claimed that he did not know the journalist. He promptly issued a statement that he had placed the Gongadze investigation under his personal supervision and would see to it that the guilty were found and punished.
However, by 2003 Melnychenko had been granted refugee status in the United States, where he hired a private audio verification laboratory, Bek Tek, to analyze the segments of the recordings dealing with Gongadze. Bek Tek concluded that the recordings were authentic and had not been tampered with and that the voices were those of Kuchma and Kravchenko. The owner of Bek Tek, Bruce Koening, had been an FBI audio verification expert for many years and his company had done similar verifications for the U.S. Supreme Court and numerous other organizations.
In response to Bek Tek's findings, the Ukrainian Prosecutor-General's Office conducted its own authentication of a copy of the same conversation and declared that it was a fake, a montage of voices, and could not be placed in evidence.
In autumn 2003, Svyatoslav Piskun replaced Mykhaylo Potebenko as prosecutor-general and promtply vowed to solve the Gongadze murder case in six months. Piskun, despite suspicions by the Gongadze family that he was covering up the investigation, did manage to make considerable headway in the case and interrogated a number of Interior Ministry (MVD) officers who described how higher level MVD officials had ordered that Gongadze be followed and then destroyed the evidence of this surveillance. These officers told investigators from the Prosecutor-General's Office that the orders to follow Gongadze had come "from the very top" of the MVD and that high-level officers supervised the operation.
These revelations led Piskun to arrest MVD General Oleksiy Pukach on suspicion of having ordered Gongadze followed and after the murder, of ordering the destruction of evidence about this surveillance.
Shortly after Pukach's arrest, Kuchma fired Piskun. Unexplained allegations were made by the SBU and the President's Council on Combating Corruption that Piskun had "embezzled funds". After a few months, Kuchma appointed Piskun deputy head of the National Defense and Security Council. He was never prosecuted for his alleged "embezzling."
Kuchma then appointed Hennadiy Vasilyev as prosecutor-general. Vasilyev, a political supporter of Kuchma, promptly had Pukach released from prison after making him sign a statement that he would not leave the country.
As prosecutor-general, Vasilyev did not seem to make any headway in investigating the case. This lack of activity led many in Ukraine to suspect that he was deliberately covering up the case and protecting those who might have been implicated.
When information was leaked to the British newspaper "The Independent" in June 2004 about how the MVD destroyed documents in the case, Vasilyev ordered an investigation into the leak and brought in the British journalist for questioning.
Vasilyev was fired by Kuchma as part of an agreement with the parliament to hold a rerun of the second round of elections in December 2004. The opposition had been demanding his removal for some time and Kuchma was forced to concede on this matter and reappointed Piskun to his old post.
After Yushchenko was inaugurated in January, Piskun was allowed to remain as prosecutor-general. But the new president reportedly asked the SBU and the MVD, now headed by his supporters, to probe the Gongadze case properly and find those responsible.
By this time, Pukach had disappeared and was placed on a wanted list while former MVD head Kravchenko was rumored to have fled the country, although no arrest warrant was apparently issued for him. Kuchma left Ukraine in the second part of February for Karlovy Vary in the Czech Republic for a vacation.
By late February, the newly invigorated investigation began producing results. On 1 March, Yushchenko announced that the SBU had arrested the killers of Gongadze on 28 February and that they were cooperating with investigators, although he did not name the arrested suspects. Interfax reported on 1 March that two men had been arrested and one surrendered to the police himself. Two of the men were colonels and one a general of the MVD.
Yushchenko told a news conference in Kyiv on 1 March that the Kuchma government had protected the killers and reiterated his earlier promise to find those "who had ordered the killing" and bring them to justice along with the actual murderers.
At the close of his press briefing Yushchenko said the time had finally come to bury the remains of Heorhiy Gongadze, which have been lying in a Kyiv morgue for four and a half years.