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Analysis: Gongadze Case Could Open Pandora's Box In Ukraine

Prosecutor-General Svyatoslav Piskun (file photo) (epa) Ukrainian Prosecutor-General Svyatoslav Piskun's press conference in Kyiv on 2 March revealed a number of new developments in the rapidly widening investigation of the slaying of online journalist Heorhiy Gongadze.

Piskun began by announcing that secret recordings made by former presidential security guard Mykola Melnychenko in former President Leonid Kuchma's office from the summer of 1999 to September 2000 will be allowed as evidence in the investigation if their authenticity is established by an international commission. Piskun then invited Melnychenko, who has been granted refugee status in the United States, to return to Kyiv with his original tapes and recording equipment to take part in the authentication process.

To pave the way for his return, Piskun said Melnychenko's safety would be guaranteed and said that charges against him pertaining to the revelation of state secrets would be dropped. Furthermore, Piskun announced that former Interior Minister Yuriy Kravchenko has been summoned to appear at the Prosecutor-General's Office on 4 March for questioning in connection with the case.

High-Fidelity Situation

The decision to interrogate Kravchenko and the possible inclusion of Melnychenko's recordings as evidence is a dramatic escalation in the search for who ordered the killing of Gongadze in September 2000. If the recordings are found be genuine, they could open a Pandora's box and have a far-reaching impact. Melnychenko's tapes contain hundreds of hours of conversations that were recorded on digital audio files, most of which have not been transcribed due to poor audio quality and lack of funds to enhance the quality of the recordings.

While the tapes were determined to be fakes by the Prosecutor-General's Office during Kuchma's reign, they are widely believed in Ukraine to be genuine, and the pending reevaluation will be conducted under vastly more transparent circumstances. In the United States, a private audio-verification laboratory hired by Melnychenko, Bek Tek, has already examined excerpts of the recordings and found them to be genuine and untampered with. If purported conversations between Kuchma and Kravchenko on the tapes are introduced as evidence, both men could be subject to arrest on criminal charges as accomplices to either kidnapping or murder. In addition, the scope of the Gongadze case could widen to include other people whose voices were allegedly captured on Melnychenko's tapes. Former Security Service head Leonid Derkach and parliament speaker Yuriy Lytvyn, who at the time headed Kuchma's administration, feature prominently among those who could face charges.

Precedent Setting

Another important factor is that by introducing the tapes as evidence in the Gongadze case, a precedent will have been set and the recordings could play a critical role in other, as yet unopened, criminal cases. This increases the probability that charges of obstruction of justice could be filed against two former Prosecutors-General, Mykola Potebenko and Hennadiy Vasilyev.

Other cases based on the recordings that would likely be opened if Melnychenko's recordings are authenticated are: unsanctioned electronic surveillance of elected officials by the Security Service and its former head Derkach; illegal arms sales; fraudulent use of state funds for Kuchma's 1999 presidential campaign; alleged conversations with then-Donetsk Governor Viktor Yanukovych about illegally removing independent judges; among others. In all these cases, Kuchma is allegedly recorded in Melnychenko's tapes giving illegal orders to his subordinates or approving their illegal initiatives.

In Yushchenko's Court

The dilemma facing Yushchenko is how far the new government is willing to go in prosecuting the misdeeds of the Kuchma administration? During the Orange Revolution the street demanded that criminality be punished -- and Yushchenko himself is on record pledging to punish those responsible for crime and corruption in the past. If the tapes are found to be genuine, and all indications are that they will be, a vast network of former officials allegedly involved in state-sponsored criminality could be liable for prosecution.

Others in Kyiv fear that the process could be undermined if, for example, certain members of the present government were to hear their own voices on the secretly taped recordings. Another important consideration is that a house cleaning on the basis of the tapes would be a serious blow to the pro-Kuchma and pro-Yanukovych forces prior to the parliamentary elections scheduled for 2006. A series of trials with their leaders in the dock accused of corruption and other crimes would cripple their chances for gaining a majority in parliament.

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The Melnychenko Tapes

The Melnychenko Tapes

The Melnychenko tapes, some of which were transcribed and published on the Internet, have never been officially recognized as genuine in Ukraine. On the contrary, the former government of President Leonid Kuchma has made many attempts to put their authenticity in doubt and suggest that they were doctored to compromise Kuchma and other top-ranking Ukrainian officials. Which is no surprise -- the Melnychenko tapes suggest that Kuchma might at least have inspired former Interior Minister Yuriy Kravchenko to abduct Georgian-born Heorhiy Gongadze, founder and editor in chief of the "Ukrayinska pravda" muckraking and investigative website in Ukraine, and "drive him out to Georgia" or hand him over to "the Chechens." Here we present translated excerpts from the tapes dealing with the Gongadze case....(more)