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Ukraine: Suspect In Journalist Murder Case Dies In Custody

Prague, 5 August 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Ukrainian sources say that a suspect in the murder of opposition journalist Heorhiy Gongadze died in police custody of, as yet, unknown causes. The Institute for Mass Information (IMI), the Ukrainian arm of the journalists' defense group Reporters Without Borders, reported on its website today that the suspect, former policeman and gang leader Ihor Honcharov, died in an ambulance carrying him from jail to a hospital on 1 August.

The IMI says Honcharov was due to give evidence about Gongadze's death to the Prosecutor-General's Office later this month. The organization says it had received a letter purporting to be from Honcharov in which he asked that it should be opened in case of his death. IMI says it has sent the letter to Ukrainian Prosecutor-General Svyatoslav Piskun.

Gongadze, who highlighted Ukrainian government corruption and criticzed the country's president. Leonid Kuchma, disappeared in 1999. Later his headless corpse was discovered buried in a forest.

A former bodyguard of Kuchma, who secretly recorded the president, released excerpts which implicated Kuchma in the case. But Kuchma denies any link to Gongadze disappearance or death.

The authorities have never charged anyone with Gongadze's murder. But last year they identified 13 members of a criminal gang they said might have knowledge of the killing. All 13 were apparently former policemen who extorted money and were led by Honcharov.

IMI says his body was cremated on 3 August and that authorities are investigating the cause of Honcharov's death.

Prosecutor-General Piskun earlier this year said it was likely the "Honcharov band" killed Gongadze. However, authorities have previously accused other criminals of involvement only to later withdraw the allegations.