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Ukraine: Prosecutor Nearly Certain Corpse Belongs To Journalist

A report by the Ukrainian prosecutor-general to parliament today on an investigation into the disappearance of journalist Heorhiy Gongadze poses more questions than it answers, identifying a corpse as very likely -- but not quite certain -- to be that of the missing journalist. Meanwhile, the intelligence officer whose secret tape recordings of Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma may implicate the president in Gongadze's disappearance has made more allegations. RFE/RL correspondent Askold Krushelnycky reports.

Prague, 11 January 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Ukraine's prosecutor-general, Mychaylo Potobenko, today made a long-awaited report to parliament about an investigation into the disappearance last year of journalist Heorhiy Gongadze. Gongadze was well known for articles on corruption in Ukraine and was highly critical of President Leonid Kuchma.

In November, a headless body was discovered outside the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv. Some of Gongadze's friends who saw the mutilated corpse were convinced it was Gongadze's body. But before they could make arrangements to transport the remains to Kyiv, the body was taken away by Ukrainian authorities for forensic tests.

Gongadze's family, friends and journalist organizations have all been critical about what they call the inordinate length of time taken to identify the body.

Now, in his report (10 January), Potobenko said DNA (genetic material) tests show there is a 99.6 percent probability the headless corpse belongs to Gongadze.

He said some of those on the forensic team were well-known experts, including one who identified the remains of the last tsar of Russia and his family, murdered by Bolsheviks in 1918.

Potobenko said there were multiple injuries on the body and its head had been hacked off with a sharp instrument, but it was impossible to establish the exact cause of death.

But he said it was still not completely certain the remains were those of Gongadze and DNA tests show there is a minute element of doubt. He also said there was evidence, such as claimed sightings of Gongadze in Ukrainian towns, to suggest the journalist is alive.

Gongadze's wife has said that because of certain characteristics of the body and jewelry found with it she is almost certain the body belonged to her husband.

Potobenko's report was immediately criticized by some members of parliament who believe President Kuchma is involved in the disappearance and who have been pressing for a full and open investigation.

One of those, former Justice Minister Serhiy Holovatiy, accused Potobenko of acting on Kuchma's behalf to obstruct the investigation.

Holovatiy likens the methods used by Potobenko and the Ukrainian administration to those used during the Stalin era:

"Potobenko is a propagator of the Stalinist system. Potobenko is a pure Stalinist, Potobenko is that type of creature who is an instrument of the sort that was used in the repressive times of Stalin in 1952, 1953 and 1937. He represents a mechanism for concealing information about the murders of human beings."

Potobenko, in his report, also said scientific tests on voice recordings that a former Ukrainian intelligence officer says are Kuchma -- suggesting Gongadze be kidnapped and handed over to a Chechen gang -- show the tapes had been doctored. The intelligence officer, Major Mykola Melnychenko, claims to have secretly taped several of Kuchma's conversations, proving the president was involved in Gongadze's disappearance as well as corruption and other illegal practices.

Kuchma has denied the tapes' authenticity.

Ukrainian authorities have issued a warrant for Melnychenko's arrest. He is said to be living in a secret location in Western Europe.

Melnychenko says he was prompted to make the tapes because he was disgusted at the corruption he claims pervaded the presidential administration and that he was dismayed at Kuchma's resort to illegal methods, including violence, to silence his political enemies.

Melnychenko has told RFE/RL he wants eventually to return to Ukraine to give evidence before a court.

But Holovatiy believes this is a bad idea for the moment.

"I would not want Melnychenko to return to Ukraine at the moment because in our country we now have a system for destroying people who tell the truth."

Melnychenko took part Tuesday night in an RFE/RL Ukrainian service broadcast in which he said he had more tapes, which pointed to Kuchma's personal involvement in taking large amounts of stock in privatized companies. He repeated he has tapes which he claims have Kuchma ordering the "destruction" -- probably political rather than physical -- of Ukraine's popular, reform-minded Prime Minister Victor Yuschenko and plans to discredit the Deputy Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko. Tymoshenko was last week charged with siphoning off millions of dollars of profits from stolen gas when she controlled Ukraine's biggest energy company.

A few weeks ago, there were several sizeable demonstrations in Ukraine supporting the Gongadze cause, with protesters demanding Kuchma's ouster, but these have now subsided.

Melnychenko says he is not disheartened:

"I don't think there's apathy in society, but I think society during the years of Kuchma's administration has grown frightened, more so than it was frightened during the years of the Gorbachev regime."

He says he believes the overwhelming majority of Ukrainians are convinced of Kuchma's involvement in the Gongadze case.

"But it's a different matter whether society is prepared to voice this protest and whether it's prepared to rid itself of a despot, a dictator, a person who has created a mechanism for the killing of people and the persecution of journalists."

Kuchma himself recently denied any involvement in Gongadze's disappearance. In a recent interview with RFE/RL, he said that the affair had been engineered as a provocation against him and Ukraine.

"Why should a president, after the election, look for some journalist. Do I look like a fool or something?"

A four-man team from a Paris-based group called "Reporters Without Frontiers," which defends the interests of journalists around the world, has been in Ukraine trying to find out more about Gongadze's fate. They say they have been promised a meeting for today with Kuchma which they hope will shed more light on the matter.