A former bodyguard of Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma alleges that Kuchma was involved in murders and illegal arms sales -- and that he has hours of audio tapes to prove it. Now, Mykola Melnychenko says there may be a plot to silence him.
Washington, 23 August 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Is somebody out to kill Mykola Melnychenko?
A former bodyguard for Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma, Melnychenko received political asylum in the U.S. last year after fleeing Ukraine with what he claimed were hundreds of hours of audio tapes that allegedly implicate Kuchma and other senior officials in the murder of journalists and officials, as well as to illegal arms sales to Iraq and Iran.
Now, Melnychenko's American lawyer, Scott Horton, tells RFE/RL that there may be a plot to kill Melnychenko:
"Tuesday morning, I did receive a call from a senior law enforcement officer with the U.S. government, who told me that they had received information that they considered to be credible, that a threat against the life of Major Melnychenko existed, and that it is was coming from Ukraine."
Horton, who is based in New York City, says it's the second time in a year that his client has received a warning from the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) that his client's life was in danger. Horton suspects the same people implicated in Melnychenko's tapes are behind the threats:
"I'm not suggesting that the government identified those circles as the source of this. They did not. [But Melnychenko's] statements have been very critical of them, and he's provided, I think, quite solid evidence of criminal wrongdoing on the part of government officials, certainly going all the way to the top, including President Kuchma. Certainly, motive would exist."
Kuchma denies all allegations linked to the tapes, which some say are part of a political battle against the president and his allies.
The existence of death threats against Melnychenko could not be independently verified. Officials at the U.S. State Department said they know nothing about such threats. Justice Department officials did not return phone calls for comment. And an FBI spokesman made the following statement to RFE/RL:
"If that did happen, as I said, which I don't know if it's true or not, that would be their prerogative -- the attorney or the individual -- to put out that information. We wouldn't say anything either way."
In an interview with RFE/RL, Melnychenko says he believes the threat is linked to his decision last week to give legally binding testimony to Ukraine's Parliamentary Commission of Investigations about his knowledge of a string of unsolved murders in Ukraine, as well as alleged weapons sales to Iraq and Iran in breach of United Nations embargoes.
That testimony, which is being gathered this week in the U.S. by the Commission's President, Hryhorii Omelchenko, is unlike any of Melnychenko's past charges because it will qualify for use in any future criminal proceedings.
Melnychenko says he was recently visited by Ukrainian officials who offered him what he calls "a kind of deal" in which he would not testify to the commission. He gave no details, although the BBC has reported that Ukrainian officials offered Melnychenko up to $6 million not to testify.
Whatever the case, Melnychenko says he refused:
"Therefore, they have only one way -- that is, my own physical elimination."
Commission President Omelchenko, who is a member of the political opposition in Ukraine and is in Washington this week, tells RFE/RL that he takes the death threats against Melnychenko seriously and believes they are being plotted in Ukraine. He says he has asked officials at Ukraine's Justice Ministry and security service (SBU) to thwart any such plot, and U.S. Justice Department officials to do all they can to protect Melnychenko on American soil.
He also says his trip has yielded key testimony from Melnychenko and other persons he would not identify. He says the testimony may help implicate senior government officials in the murder of journalists and politicians, as well as the looting of government hard-currency reserves and the illegal sale of arms:
"I'm emphasizing once again: All these documents will be prepared in legal form in Ukraine, reviewed by the commission -- which will take its action at the beginning of September -- and forwarded to the General Prosecutor's Office for criminal proceedings against those state officials who appear to be involved in high crimes."
But the likelihood of such proceedings actually occurring is uncertain. Omelchenko says Kuchma has authority over the general prosecutor, including the power to sack him.
Last April, FBI agents who had been invited to Ukraine to investigate the murder of journalist Heorhi Gongadze -- one of the killings Kuchma is allegedly linked to through Melnychenko's tapes -- returned home early after Ukrainian officials denied them access to key evidence.