Cop Murder Puts New Cabinet At Odds

KIEV, Ukraine -- It’s been just over a month since the government began being restocked by members of the so-called Donetsk clan, but the recent slaying of a senior policeman who had been investigating financial crimes in the eastern industrial region has again raised the specter of criminals in the halls of power.

Police officer Roman Yerokhin was found murdered Aug. 20 in what the interior minister says may have been a hit ordered by an MP.

Moreover, the gruesome killing, reminiscent of the politically charged journalist murders that characterized the administration of former President Leonid Kuchma, looks set to further divide the fragile new Cabinet.

The handcuffed body of Roman Yerokhin, a senior officer of the Directorate for Fighting Organized Crime (UBOZ) who had disappeared on July 27, was found on Aug. 20 outside Kyiv. He had been shot eight times in what has been widely described as a contract hit connected to Yerokhin’s work against money laundering in Donetsk Region.

Following statements made by Ukrainian Prosecutor-General Oleksandr Medvedko, a one-time Donetsk Region prosecutor, an investigation into the murder launched by Interior Minister Yuriy Lutsenko could be sidetracked or halted, while partisan parliamentary infighting is likely to prevent businessmen with legislative mandates from facing prosecution.

Unnamed MP accused

Speaking at a press conference on Aug. 11, Lutsenko, whose post brings law-enforcement in Ukraine under his control, said that Yerokhin had been investigating a large money conversion operation linked to a Donetsk financial establishment before being kidnapped and killed. Lutsenko said Yerokhin had been a former deputy head of the Donetsk UBOZ, but was transferred to the main directorate in Kyiv in February 2006 for his own safety after receiving threats related to his police work.

Following the discovery of Yerokhin’s body, Lutsenko said Aug. 23 that all the key figures in the murder had been arrested – including Vadym Klikovskiy, a former UBOZ employee who had gone into hiding in Ternopil Region.

In an interview with Ukraine’s Dzerkalo Tyzhnya weekly published Sept. 2, Lutsenko said that an MP with ties to a Donetsk-based financial establishment, which he did not name, had ordered the killing. He said that “if we can find out who ordered the hit, then this may have seismic consequences, and could be a very serious blow to the methods of forming party lists, to which politicians, both in the opposition and in power, resort to.”

Prosecutor’s denial

However, Prosecutor General Oleksandr Medvedko, whose office is now handling the investigation, played down any connection that the murder might have to MPs, telling a press conference Sept. 8 that much about Yerokhin’s murder has been exaggerated, particularly by the media.

“In the criminal case file, there is not even the smallest piece of information that people’s deputies were involved,” Medvedko said.

Lutsenko’s response to Medvedko’s comments was immediate, warning at his own press conference the same day that the investigation had reached an impasse and was in danger of falling apart.

“All this time, the prosecutor’s office, having taken the case away from us, has from the very start passed it from regional prosecutors to the city, then to the PGO’s office, but it has not undertaken any investigations.”

Lutsenko said that PGO investigators have not even bothered to question the prime suspect in the murder, Klikovskiy, who is currently in custody. Lutsenko said that, instead, the PGO has called in Lutsenko’s own investigators for questioning.

“I think that all this points to attempts to drag out this case, and possibly, to conceal the truth. The investigation into this matter is obviously under threat,” he said.

Lutsenko is among a handful of ministers appointed under Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko in 2005 following the Orange Revolution, who have retained their posts under the new government recently formed by Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych, leader of the Donetsk-based Regions Party, which heads a pro-Russian majority coalition in parliament.

Prior to his reappointment as interior minister under the new government, Lutsenko, a Socialist Party member, had said that he would resign from the post if Yanukovych, the Orange Revolution’s arch enemy during his fraud-filled grab for the presidency in 2004, became prime minister.

Lutsenko left the Socialist Party after its leader, Oleksandr Moroz, abandoned the pro-presidential Orange Coalition in parliament in early July and used his party to form the new majority coalition with the Regions, acquiring the parliamentary speaker’s seat for himself as part of the deal.

When Yanukovych was confirmed premier on Aug. 4, Lutsenko was in hospital with hypertension, but accepted the post of interior minister under Yanukovych just days later.

In addition to raising the question of how effectively Lutsenko and his ministry can work under the current Donetsk-dominated government, Yerokhin’s murder also raises the issue of stripping lawmakers’ immunity and sanctioning their arrest for committing crimes.

To date, Pavlo Lazarenko, who served as premier in 1996-1997, is the only senior Ukrainian official to have been tried and sentenced, albeit abroad. He is also the only MP to have been stripped of immunity.

“I think enough proof has been gathered to confirm our main theory [of Yerokhin’s murder], but the grounds are not sufficient to charge a citizen who holds a high position,” Lutsenko told Dzerkalo Tyzhnya.

He said that in addition to Yerokhin, Donetsk tax police chief Mikhail Serbin, who was fired from his post in the spate of recent sackings carried out on the basis of political affiliation, had also been investigating financial institutions in Donetsk.

“According to the information which he [Serbin] presented, financial abuses resulted in losses that ran into many millions,” Lutsenko said.

Opinions divided

Taras Chornovil, an MP of the ruling Regions party, told the Post Sept. 6 that Lutsenko’s statements should not be taken seriously.

“I’ve stopped commenting on Lutsenko’s statements a long time ago. He constantly makes unfounded statements,” he said.

“When making those [statements] he did not refer to any document or factual events. It was something more personal,” he added.

Regarding the similarity of this case to the high profile murder of journalist Georgiy Gongadze in 2000, or the investigation into the 1999 death of his dissident father, Vyacheslav Chornovil, Chornovil said “Lutsenko’s statement on the investigation into my father’s death seemed much more reasonable than the ones he made on the Yerokhin case to me. At that time, he supported it with evidence - documents and facts,” Chornovil said.

Parliamentary deputy Andriy Shevchenko of the opposition Yulia Tymoshenko Bloc is also hesitant to acknowledge that one of his colleagues in parliament has any involvement in the murder: “the theories that come up are very different.”

However, Shevchenko said that he would support a move to strip a criminal parliamentary deputy of immunity regardless of party affiliation.

“For me, the party that a criminal belongs to does not matter. I will vote in favor of his immunity being taken away in order for justice to be served,” he said.

Shevchenko also said he would support the creation of a parliamentary ad-hoc commission to investigate the Yerokhin murder, adding, however, that he doesn’t “see this killing as being at all similar to the Gongadze case.”

However, Boris Penchuk, the chief of the Anticorruption Fund and a Donetsk businessman, sees a political angle to the Yerokhin case.

Penchuk, who fought Boris Kolesnikov, an ally of Regions money bags Rinat Akhmetov, over ownership of a shopping center in Donetsk, said that everything surrounding the Yerokhin case is an attempt to discredit Lutsenko. The aim, said Penchuk, is to pay back Lutsenko for putting Kolesnikov, then the head of the Donetsk regional council, into jail for four months in 2005 for alleged wrongdoing involving ownership of the shopping center.

Penchuk told the Post Sept. 12 that “Yerokhin’s death was convenient for the people who were repressed some six to 18 months ago [during the two Orange Cabinets]. It served to discredit Lutsenko and lead him out of the game.”

Penchuk added that “Yerokhin was possibly kidnapped in order to get information that would discredit Lutsenko. It’s probable that he was a Trojan horse in Lutsenko’s entourage. There is a real war going on between the [Cabinet] representatives of Akhmetov and President [Viktor] Yushchenko. Somebody simply wants to crush Lutsenko.”

Source: Kyiv Post