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Ukraine: Thousands Demonstrate Against Kuchma In Kyiv, Around The World

Thousands of protesters defied the law and took to the streets of Kyiv Monday, demanding the resignation of President Leonid Kuchma. But there were also symbolic rallies in many other countries in support of Ukrainian democracy and in memory of slain journalist Heorhiy Gongadze and other high-profile victims of unsolved murders in Ukraine.

Washington, 17 September 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Thousands of protesters in Kyiv and around the world marked the second anniversary of the disappearance of a prominent journalist by demanding at rallies on Monday the resignation of Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma.

As thousands of people converged on central Kyiv to urge Kuchma to resign or call early elections, symbolic protests were also staged in New York, Washington, Paris, London, Brussels, Budapest, Berlin, Lisbon, and Prague. The rallies, which each had about 20 people, paid tribute to journalist Heorhiy Gongadze and other Ukrainian reporters and politicians believed to be the victims of politically motivated murders.

The body of Gongadze, who often wrote about alleged official graft, was found outside Kyiv in November 2000. A national scandal was sparked in the fall of 2001 after the appearance of audio tapes recorded by a former member of Kuchma's security detail appeared to implicate the president in the killing.

In possibly the largest demonstration in Ukraine since independence in 1991, up to 25,000 protesters converged on central Kyiv in defiance of a court order banning rallies in the downtown part of the capital. Protesters waved banners saying "No to Kuchma's regime," and they called on the president to step aside. "Kuchma out! Kuchma out! Kuchma out!" they shouted.

Kyiv television stations, which shut down in the morning for what authorities said was routine maintenance, later resumed roadcasting. But residents called the simultaneous station blackout unprecedented and likely motivated by a desire to keep the protests off television screens.

Speaking at the rally, Ukrainian Communist Party Chairman Petro Symonenko said the protesters have several demands. "Our demands are: early presidential elections, Kuchma's removal from power, a change in our system of government, changes to the constitution, [and] a new proportional-representation election law," Symonenko said.

At the rally in Washington, Gongadze's widow Myroslava told a small group of protesters in front of the Ukrainian Embassy that Ukraine's future as an independent democracy will be jeopardized if Ukrainians do not speak out against the killings.

Myroslava Gongadze has political asylum in the U.S. and works as a freelance journalist for RFE/RL. She also presided over a memorial on Sunday at Washington's monument to Taras Shevchenko, Ukraine's national poet, for her husband and other prominent figures who have died or disappeared in unexplained circumstances, such as opposition leaders Vadym Boyko in 1992 and Mykhaylo Boychyshyn in 1994. "I often think that had Ukrainian society reacted immediately to the death of Boyko or the disappearance of Boychyshyn, perhaps the horrible list of the dead would have been much shorter. I do not want my husband's death to go in vain; I want Ukrainian society to learn from its mistakes," Myroslava Gongadze said.

In conjunction with the commemorative events, some 300 prominent international scholars and activists have signed a letter urging U.S. President George W. Bush to make Washington's relations with Kyiv conditional on democratic and human rights progress in Ukraine. Myroslava Gongadze delivered the letter yesterday to the White House.

Those who signed it include renowned scholars Francis Fukuyama of Johns Hopkins University, Michael McFaul of Stanford University, and Anders Aslund of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

At Sunday's requiem, statements by prominent U.S. lawmakers were read out, including from Christopher H. Smith (Republican, New Jersey), co-chairman of the U.S. Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission.

Smith said that no progress has been made on the investigations into any of Ukraine's high-profile murders despite steady pressure from the Helsinki Commission, U.S. Congress, the State Department, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the Council of Europe, and other international bodies.

Although Kuchma has denied any wrongdoing, Smith concluded that the lack of investigative progress "has only served to fuel speculation about official involvement" in the murders.

That conclusion was echoed by the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists, or CJP. In a statement last Friday, the CPJ said it was dismayed by the lack of progress on the Gongadze case, adding that, "President Kuchma's government continues to obstruct the official inquiry."

Next week, Myroslava Gongadze will take that same message to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, France. The court is expected to address the issue of her husband's death, and Gongadze said she will make an appeal that the court clearly state that Ukrainian investigators are not doing enough to uncover the truth and that the murder must be considered a crime against humanity. "If those who perpetrated these killings are not brought to justice, then murder and terror against those who are deemed 'inconvenient' in Ukraine will continue until all who are not afraid to think are completely wiped out," Myroslava Gongadze said.

While in Strasbourg, Gongadze will also address the human rights subcommittee of the Council of Europe, which has launched its own probe into Ukraine's stalled investigation into her husband's death.