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Ukraine: Intelligence Officer Returns From Exile To Run For Parliament

A Ukrainian intelligence officer who says he secretly recorded the country's president, Leonid Kuchma, ordering action against journalist Heorhiy Gongadze is back in the news. Mykola Melnychenko, who was granted asylum in the U.S. after fleeing Ukraine more than a year ago, is now being considered as a possible candidate for the country's parliamentary elections in March.

Prague, 5 February 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Ukrainian intelligence officer and presidential bodyguard Mykola Melnychenko first emerged on Ukraine's political stage in November 2000, when he published excerpts of what he claimed were secretly recorded conversations of the country's president, Leonid Kuchma.

The excerpts included alleged recordings of Kuchma ordering action taken against opposition journalist Heorhiy Gongadze, who was investigating high-level corruption with links to the president. Gongadze was abducted in September 2000; two months later, his headless corpse was discovered in woods outside the Ukrainian capital Kyiv. The case has yet to be resolved.

Melnychenko's recordings also purport to show Kuchma engaged in conversations proving that the president routinely accepted kickbacks for helping Ukrainian businessmen acquire state-owned enterprises.

Kuchma has admitted the voice in the excerpts is his, but says the recordings have been tampered with to alter the meaning of his statements. He denies any involvement in corruption or Gongadze's disappearance, and his office has accused Melnychenko of working for a foreign intelligence service.

Melnychenko fled Ukraine days before the tapes were released and was granted political asylum in the United States soon after (April 2001). But his recordings prompted Kuchma's political opponents to organize massive demonstrations calling for the president's resignation. Kuchma remained in power, but criticism over the issue from the U.S. and Western Europe dealt a serious blow to his international prestige. Ukrainian authorities, accusing Melnychenko of treason, have issued an international warrant for his arrest.

But now Melnychenko is being touted as a potential candidate in next the 31 March Ukrainian parliamentary elections. Oleksandr Moroz, the head of Ukraine's Socialist party, has included the former bodyguard on his candidate list. Moroz, who was the first to receive Melnychenko's tapes when he decided to go public, says he wants to keep the issue of Kuchma's alleged corruption at the forefront of the campaign.

Political candidates are granted automatic immunity from prosecution during the course of an election campaign, meaning Melnychenko could safely return to Ukraine once his candidacy is official. But Ukraine's Central Election Commission has refused to register Melnychenko, saying he does not meet proper residency requirements because he fled the country over a year ago. Moroz has contested the decision, and Ukraine's Supreme Court is expected to open deliberations on the matter today.

Melnychenko accuses the election commission of acting on Kuchma's orders. Speaking from the U.S., he told RFE/RL he believes the president is afraid he will return and release even more excerpts from the recordings:

"I am an inconvenient figure in Ukraine, and if I am refused [the right to run in parliamentary elections], then this is not for legal reasons but for entirely political reasons."

The Ukrainian Prosecutor-General's Office last week asked a U.S. congressman for assistance in extraditing Melnychenko back to Ukraine. Ukrainian authorities have argued that having Melnychenko on hand to provide evidence into the Gongadze murder could step up the investigation into the case.

Parliamentarian Hryhoriy Omelchenko is a Melnychenko supporter. He believes Kuchma should guarantee Melnychenko's immunity from prosecution to allow him to return and give evidence in the Gongadze case. However, Omelchenko admits this is not likely to happen: "Mykola Melnychenko is a dangerous witness for people in top government positions who have committed crimes in Ukraine."

Melnychenko himself says he is afraid of what would happen if he returned to Ukraine without guarantees of immunity: "I am afraid that [the Ukrainian] government will cynically lock me up in jail and not allow me to give evidence, so I have a fear of that. This government is trying to get me to Ukraine, arrest me, and then take my evidence. But why don't they take my evidence here on U.S. territory?"

Melnychenko is now facing potential problems with the U.S. justice system as well. Last week, a California court demanded he hand over his recordings to them. The court says the recordings may be used as evidence in the eventual trial of former Ukrainian Premier Pavlo Lazarenko.

Lazarenko has been held in a California jail on money-laundering charges since he fled Ukraine two years ago requesting political asylum in America. Lazarenko has accused Kuchma of involvement in the money-laundering operation, and U.S. prosecutors believe Melnychenko's tapes could provide useful evidence in the case. But the former bodyguard says he is reluctant to hand over the recordings because some of their contents could compromise Ukraine's national security interests.

Melnychenko, who may face arrest if he refuses to hand over the tapes to the U.S. court, told RFE/RL his lawyers are handling the California request. He said he would prefer the contents of the recordings to be investigated first by Ukrainian justice officials operating independently of Kuchma's administration. If that is not possible, Melnychenko says, then the U.S. Justice Department has the right to investigate the tape for evidence of breaches of U.S. laws and UN sanctions.