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Ukraine: Chief Prosecutor Pledges To Help Foreigners In Gongadze Probe

Ukraine's chief prosecutor has promised to help foreign investigators in trying to solve the murder two years ago of opposition journalist Heorhiy Gongadze. But he says the cooperation must be both ways.

Kyiv, 7 October 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The mystery of who killed opposition journalist Heorhiy Gongadze has not been solved, two years after Gongadze's headless corpse was found in a forest outside the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv.

The murder has caused immense damage to the reputation and ability to govern of Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma. Secret recordings made by a disaffected bodyguard, Mykola Melnychenko, who later sought political asylum in the United States, appeared to implicate Kuchma himself in the journalist's death.

Kuchma denies the allegations, but since the emergence of the recordings, opposition groups have used them to muster sentiment against Kuchma. On 16 September, the second anniversary of Gongadze's death, there were mass demonstrations calling for Kuchma's resignation.

That was also the day the United States revealed that it was treating as authentic another excerpt from recordings by Melnychenko that indicated Kuchma approved the sale of a sophisticated passive radar system called Kolchuha to Iraq, which something that could endanger U.S. and British pilots flying over Iraqi territory.

The investigation into Gongadze's murder has been criticized as incompetent or even deliberately ineffective by his wife, mother, colleagues, and Ukrainian and Western politicians and human rights activists.

The United States has issued a list of 20 questions it wants clarified over the issue, and on 3 October, French forensic experts began re-examining Gongadze's remains to make an identification that will be accepted. There have been several DNA analyses of the corpse, which was badly decomposed when found.

Some of the analyses have been questioned and doubt has been cast over whether the body is Gongadze's at all. The head has never been found.

Ukrainian Prosecutor-General Svyatoslav Piskun told journalists that his service made serious mistakes in investigating the murder, and he pledged to cooperate with French and U.S. investigators.

He said the mistakes were not deliberate or related to state policy but were because of negligence by ordinary investigators. He said in one instance, a prosecutor in the region where Gongadze's body was found, said the journalist's jewelry was on his body, while, in fact, an unknown person brought it to investigators. "We are ready for cooperation and to answer all the questions that have been asked by American experts about the conduct of the criminal investigation into Gongadze's murder," Piskun said.

Piskun said he doubted Melnychenko's account of how he'd recorded Kuchma's alleged conversations, saying only that highly sensitive equipment could have been used, not a tape recorder as Melnychenko stated. Melnychenko said he hid the recording device under a couch in Kuchma's office. However, Ukrainian tests show that a tape recorder hidden there could not have picked up many of the sounds on Melnychenko's recordings. "As I understand it, the technology was far superior than that which Melnychenko has talked about," Piskun said.

Piskun said Ukraine asked for the original recordings in order to verify whether the recordings were authentic. Piskun said their requests to Melnychenko and the United States had been refused. "We made our position known to Major Melnychenko. We asked them to give us the original recordings -- not to damage them or burn them or anything, but to study them, because we do have the technology, the specialists to conduct analyses of these recordings. We would use the best experts on this. But don't treat us as fools. Give us the originals instead of edited copies. How can I tell whether these are edited from the original recordings?" Piskun said.

Piskun said that without Ukraine's being able to verify the recordings, there would always be difficulties if new allegations emerged from the secret recordings. "We have to find a common way to resolve this problem because the present practice is not completely healthy. What if tomorrow, for example, there is another excerpt saying there was a conversation that someone wanted to rape someone. What then? Obviously, we're not going to believe that, but how do you check it? Therefore, this is a serious issue," Piskun said.

On 1 October, opposition lawmaker Hryhoriy Omelchenko claimed that there will be further claims based on the recordings linking Kuchma to more illicit arms deals. He said the Kolchuha problem is only the tip of the iceberg.