Justice Denied

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Whoever ordered the murder of Georgiy Gongadze in 2000 may have hoped that, by now, people would stop demanding justice. If so, they are mistaken.

Myroslava Gongadze, a journalist with Voice of America in Washington, D.C., received political asylum in the United States a year after her husband's 2000 murder. She now lives in Washington with the couple’s twin daughters, Solomiya (upper) and Nana.

More than eight years later, international and national voices continue to press Ukrainian authorities to find out who silenced the crusading Kyiv journalist who founded Ukrainska Pravda website and used the online news platform to criticize high-level corruption.

Every six months or so, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe calls for the investigation to be completed. The United States takes the same position, but hasn’t had much to say recently. Ukrainian Human Rights Ombudsman Nina Karpacheva has denounced the unprofessional investigation into the beheading of the journalist.

“It seems to me that [the Prosecutor General’s Office] lacks the courage, professionalism or independence to name those who ordered this murder,” Karpacheva said at a news conference last fall commemorating the Sept. 16, 2000, disappearance of Gongadze. “Until the head of Georgiy Gongadze is found, Ukraine will remain the ‘headless rider.’”

These voices hope that their quest for justice is not a futile one. However, the official investigation long ago – to the discredit of the nation’s political leaders and law enforcement agencies – degenerated into farce.

The case appears as stalled as the 2004 Orange Revolution, the peaceful uprising triggered by the outrage of millions of Ukrainians who took to the streets to demand justice in the Gongadze murder and other high-profile crimes, including the rigged presidential election that year. But hope, as the saying goes, dies last.

Recent progress has been reported. Nearly a year ago, three former police officers were sentenced to prison terms of 12-13 years. But nobody thinks the convictions of Mykola Protasov, Valeriy Kostenko and Oleksandr Popovych represent justice. If the trio did participate in the actual killing and beheading of Gongadze, they are widely seen as fall guys, lower-level police officers who followed orders.

But whose orders?

The key to answering that question, many still believe, lies with the tapes allegedly recorded by former presidential bodyguard Mykola Melnychenko. The Melnychenko tapes are purportedly 700 hours of recordings that – if authentic – show that former President Leonid Kuchma ran the nation of 46 million people as a criminal enterprise in which murder, massive theft, punitive tax inspections, election fraud and intimidation were routine.

The Melnychenko tapes purportedly show that Gongadze had become such an irritant to Kuchma that the president, who ruled from 1994 to 2005, discussed ways to silence the journalist. The tapes allegedly show Kuchma had conversations about Gongadze with chief of staff Volodymyr Lytvyn, former Interior Minister Yuriy Kravchenko and others.

Kuchma is out of power. Kravchenko died of gunshot wounds the day he was supposed to give testimony in the case. Oleksiy Pukach, former chief of the Interior Ministry’s surveillance department, remains a key suspect. Pukach has fled the nation. Lytvyn is now speaker of the parliament.

Meanwhile, Gongadze’s 36-year-old widow, Myroslava, received political asylum in the United States in 2001 and is now a journalist for Voice of America in Washington, D.C. She is raising the couple’s 11-year-old twin daughters, Solomiya and Nana. Gongadze’s mother, Lesia, also continues her quest for justice.

Myroslava Gongadze blames the “Kuchma regime” for her husband’s murder. She also believes Yushchenko “is not willing to get to the bottom of the case.” Kuchma has always denied any involvement in Gongadze’s murder or any knowledge of the circumstances of the journalist’s death. From time to time, as recently as this month, Yushchenko still expresses interest in having the case solved. But the president’s statements ring hollow to many.

The following is a Kyiv Post interview with Myroslava Gongadze:

Do you still hope that the case will be solved? Or have you given up?

There was not a lot of hope to solve this case at the beginning of the investigation. However, I made a decision that I would do everything possible to reach this result. We have shown that it is possible to fight for justice and for human rights. Our goal is worth fighting for. The Orange Revolution happened. Perpetrators of the murder went on trial and have been convicted. They are being punished. People believed that the fight is realistic. I haven’t given up on pursuing justice. I believe that investigating crimes against Georgiy, other journalists and politicians during the [President Leonid] Kuchma regime is both morally necessary and a practical step in the fight against corruption.

Does the evidence still exist?

I think there is a lot of evidence not investigated in full. The Prosecutor General’s Office has not done its job. I think the reason for this is the lack of political will magnified by the lack of professionalism. Not all participants of the conversation [about how to silence Gongadze] in President Kuchma’s office have been questioned by investigators. The analysis of the recording [of the Mykola Melnychenko tapes] has not been done as Melnychenko is claiming there are hundreds of hours of recording. The conversations between Kuchma and his close circle must be compared with events of that time. The Ukrainian government has not satisfied the decision by the European Court of Human Rights in the Gongadze case. President [Victor] Yushchenko did not fulfill his promise in front of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe to get to the bottom of this case. For five years, the authorities were covering up the crime. This is a crime itself that must be investigated.

Do you think that a deal was struck at height of the Orange Revolution and Kuchma was given immunity for Gongadze and other crimes?

There are a lot of talks about this kind of deal and I don’t have the facts to dispute it. I suspect that the new Ukrainian authorities decided to stop the investigation in Georgiy’s murder at the level of the perpetrators. Despite President Yushchenko’s previous and recent statements, I don’t see that he has the real will to investigate this and other crimes of the Kuchma regime.

What has Yushchenko done right and what has he done wrong regarding this matter?

Some promises given on Maidan have been fulfilled. The perpetrators of this crime have been convicted. However, this was the result of a long fight of the family, friends, lawyers and a few brave investigators. The new government just opened the door to allow this to happen. Everything else was done wrong. The investigating team was changed. The few investigators [assigned to] the case [after it was] sent to court were deprived from the investigative process and were sent to different divisions in different regions of Ukraine.

Do you agree that the Gongadze case is a litmus test for Ukraine’s passage into democracy – a test that it has failed so far?

I said this in 2002 and I continue to say the same thing now in 2009. Yes, this is a litmus test which Ukraine has failed so far. But we cannot afford to give up. I think, in many aspects, the future of Ukraine depends on the results of this case.

Have you determined in your mind what happened and who is to blame?

Definitely I have only one to blame: the Kuchma regime, first of all, for allowing this to happen. According to Melnychenko’s tapes, which are, in my opinion, authentic, discussing the matter with the head of his administration [current Verkhovna Rada Speaker Volodymyr] Lytvyn and [the late Interior Minister Yuriy] Kravchenko, Kuchma suggested that “this Georgian” (Gongadze) be “given to Chechens” for ransom or taken somewhere. “I will take care of him, Leonid,” Kravchenko responded. “I will do it. He will be sorry.” Two of the participants of the conversations still can be questioned. Kravchenko is silent forever, just as a lot of other participants of conversations in Kuchma’s office died under strange circumstances. I think it is very important to move this investigation and others forward and faster. One more suspect in this crime, General [Oleksiy] Pukach [who is suspected of strangling Gongadze] is in hiding. The completed investigation against the perpetrators has all the evidence that he personally helped another policeman kill Georgiy and then tried to cover up the case.

What do you think about the fact that Lytvyn and others in power then such as [former Tax Administration Chief] Mykola Azarov are still prominent politicians today?

They were a part of the authoritarian power built and practiced in Ukraine during the Kuchma era. They acted as insurance for the political survival of Kuchma. Their dealings at that time have to be investigated, as should all crimes of the Kuchma regime. Volodymyr Lytvyn particularly has never said: “I am not connected to Gongadze’s murder.” He is using a lot of different words, but he never gives a direct answer.

What do you think about Kuchma?

I see Kuchma as a former government official who should be under trial in the courtroom. He is a source of many problems in Ukraine. He allowed the corruption and abuse of power to blossom in Ukraine. He developed the system that gave full immunity to his close circle. Those who were not supporting such practices or spoke against it were prosecuted, harassed or even killed. However, it was not sufficient for him to be feared. In addition, he wanted to be loved by people. For the sake of this love, he was ready to wipe out his political rivals and journalists. He was never happy with what he had. Kuchma reminds me the old greedy wife from Pushkin’s ‘The Tale of the Fisherman and the Fish.’ At the end of the story, the old wife remained with a broken washboard. The tragedy here is that all 46 million Ukrainians have been left with the broken washboard.

How is your life going?

It is very important for me to be able to make a difference. My work as a human rights activist and journalist in Washington gives me this opportunity. Every day at my news desk I am trying to show Ukrainians new horizons and open new worlds. I live in a place where important political decisions are made that I can influence. At the same time, I am present in Ukraine on a television screen, helping people to understand this world better. In my personal life, my priority is my children. I want them to grow up as decent, smart and strong personalities, with good critical thinking, being able to make their own decisions and find their own destiny. They survived a big tragedy in their life and I want to protect them.

What do you tell your daughters about their father?

They know their father from photos we have at home, videos, my stories and our friends’ stories about him. They are proud of their father and we have a place in Washington we can go and mourn his untimely death. In Newseum [the museum of news], there is a memorial of journalists who died in the line of duty. Georgiy’s name and portrait are there.

Are you as dissatisfied, like most Ukrainians, with the political and economic situation?

I am frustrated and disappointed. For 17 years we have failed to build any basis for healthy governance and statehood. The country's resources are being wasted. It is out of control. Politicians are thinking only about their personal wealth. Now I am afraid that even independence of the country is in danger. The only hope Ukraine has is its people. They have to believe in themselves and have to take greater responsibility for their actions and future. We have to look for the new leaders among ourselves.

What do you miss the most in Ukraine?

I miss the energy of Ukrainian life, music and friends. There is a different nerve of life in Ukraine. Western society gives stability, but the music of life is missing. I still hope that one day I can return to Ukraine to be useful there.

What do you miss the least in Ukraine?

Discord of life. Ubiquitous discord of life. I do not miss rude militia and irresponsible officials.

Have you made contact with other relatives of journalists slain?

Yes, constantly and not only in Ukraine; in Russia, Azerbaijan and other places. People call me and ask for help.

Is there danger for journalists in the United States?

There are many investigative journalists in the United States and it can be dangerous here, too. Of course, not to the extent as it is in Ukraine. The danger for a journalist is also to betray himself or herself. A journalist has to be truthful to him or herself and it can be difficult.

Source: Kyiv Post