How High Does Conspiracy Go?

KIEV, Ukraine -- It took ten years for the prosecutors to conclude that the murder of journalist Georgiy Gongadze was ordered by the then Interior Minister Yuriy Kravchenko. But the case should not end there.

Oleksiy Pukach, a former top official with the Interior Ministry, after his 2009 arrest on suspicion of murdering Georgiy Gongadze.

It took 10 years, but the nation’s prosecutors have finally concluded what many others suspected a long time ago: Ex-Interior Minister Yuriy Kravchenko ordered a top subordinate, former police general Oleksiy Pukach, to kill journalist Georgiy Gongadze on Sept. 16, 2000.

But the case doesn’t end there and could reignite into a major scandal – the kind that, right after Gongadze’s murder, helped turn the nation against ex-President Leonid Kuchma, whose authoritarian rule lasted from 1994 until 2005.

Along with the prosecutors’ findings, announced on Sept. 14, came fresh disclosures that the conspiracy involving Gongadze’s murder and the subsequent cover-up may have reached as high as Kuchma, who left office in scandal nearly six years ago, and his former chief of staff, Volodymyr Lytvyn, who is now the speaker of parliament.

Their involvement in Gongadze’s murder has also been long suspected. Both Kuchma and Lytvyn this week, however, repeated their longstanding denials of involvement. They also ratcheted up their own accusations, blaming the journalist’s death on an international conspiracy designed to damage Ukraine.

The fresh evidence implicating Kuchma and Lytvyn allegedly comes from Pukach, who has been jailed since his July 21, 2009, arrest in the case after several years as a fugitive. Investigators say that Pukach, who took charge of police surveillance against Gongadze, has been cooperating and has given an extensive confession.

Pukach is expected to eventually stand trial on charges that he led three police subordinates – who all have been convicted and are now serving prison sentences – in the gruesome kidnapping, strangulation and beheading of Gongadze.

Valentyna Telychenko, a lawyer representing Gongadze’s widow, Myroslava, said on Sept. 16 that Pukach’s testimony implicates both Kuchma and Lytvyn in the crime and subsequent cover-up.

Citing investigators’ transcripts, Telychenko said Pukach claims that, in a meeting with Lytvyn and Kravchenko the day after Gongadze’s murder, Kravchenko told Lytvyn: “Volodymyr Mykhailovych [Lytvyn], this is our worker who personally took care of Gongadze.” According to Pukach, Kravchenko also patted him on the shoulder and said to Lytvyn: “Tell the president that we shall fulfill any of his orders.”

While Pukach’s credibility may be questionable, the jailed police commander’s version of events is also supported by the so-called “Melnychenko tapes,” the hundreds of hours of conversations in Kuchma’s office that were secretly recorded by ex-presidential bodyguard Mykola Melnychenko.

The tapes capture numerous alleged crimes involving Kuchma from 1999 and 2000, when Socialist Party leader Oleksander Moroz publicly released excerpts of the recordings involving Gongadze.

On those Melnychenko tapes, whose authenticity is disputed by Kuchma and others implicated on them, the ex-president, Lytvyn, Kravchenko, ex-Security Services of Ukraine head Leonid Derkach and other top-ranking officials discuss ways to silence Gongadze.

The journalist had angered the administration with his critical reporting on corruption for the online news site he founded, Ukrainska Pravda, which is now among the nation’s leading news sources.

Besides repeating their longstanding denials, Kuchma and Lytvyn this week alleged that they and the nation are victims of an international conspiracy. Kuchma implied the United States was to blame.

“It’s an international scandal designed to compromise Ukraine,” Kuchma was quoted by the Kyiv-based information agency UNIAN as saying on Sept. 15. “They didn’t give me or Ukraine any peace for five years.”

The former Ukrainian president said foreign secret services were involved in Gongadze’s disappearance. He added that agents from the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency were present at [anti-presidential] demonstrations following Gongadze’s disappearance.

“This was paid for. Money makes everything possible,” Kuchma said. Then he went on to say that he is satisfied that the United States, under President Barack Obama, is no longer trying to spread democracy around the globe.

In a Kyiv Post interview, Lytvyn said on Sept. 15 that the investigators’ findings exonerate him. He also blamed Gongadze’s murder on an international conspiracy.

“The investigation confirmed that I have nothing to do with this [Gongadze] case. I believe that all these events [Gongadze case, Melnychenko tapes] were directed also from outside of Ukraine and directed also by special services. I think this was organized in order to put Ukraine in its place,” Lytvyn said.

These comments appear to show that Lytvyn either knows inner details of the investigation, or he is very confident that he will not be considered a suspect despite Pukach’s testimony alleging his involvement.

Kravchenko is, of course, unable to help sort out the dispute. The nation’s former top police official, a close and longtime confidant of Kuchma, died from two gunshot wounds to the head on March 4, 2005, in his suburban Koncha Zaspa home. The mysterious death was officially ruled a suicide, a version long disputed by Kravchenko’s relatives.

As mourners lit candles on Independence Square on Sept. 16 to mark the 10th anniversary of Gongadze’s murder, the same questions remain as strong a decade later: Who ordered the murder, and are state investigators committed to solving the crime without fear or favor, regardless of where the evidence leads?

Investigation, cover-up

The wrap-up of the pre-trial investigation on Sept. 7 only means the case will be transferred to court, where judges could order further investigation. More investigation is what advocates for Gongadze’s relatives and their representatives want.

Telychenko, who represents Gongadze’s widow, Myroslava, has started looking through the voluminous files involving Pukach’s testimony that investigators released to her this week. She believes Pukach’s version of the Sept. 17, 2000 meeting with Kravchenko and Lytvyn clearly implicates the parliament speaker and Kuchma in both the crime and the cover-up.

Hanna Herman, President Viktor Yanukovych’s aid, said that the administration wants a credible investigation to be concluded but is not sure if it is possible.

“The case should be carried out objectively, so that the Ukrainian and international community believe in the results of the investigation,” Herman said. “I don’t know if it’s possible given the wasted opportunities.”

The momentum for finding the truth has been lost, Herman said, and part of the blame lies with ex-President Viktor Yushchenko, who had declared that solving the Gongadze murder was a “matter of honor” for him during his five-year presidency that ended on Feb. 25.

“The case that Yushchenko claimed to be a matter of honor turned out to be a big dishonor for him,” Herman said. “They should have carried out this case and protected the witnesses. But Kravchenko was killed in 2005. They [the wrongdoers] had enough time to cover up the tracks and now it’s really hard to find those who really gave the order to kill Gongadze.”

However, many also point the blame at close associates of Yanukovych, starting with pro-presidential lawmaker Syvatoslav Piskun, who served as prosecutor general for many years as the case dragged on. Kravchenko’s death came shortly after Piskun publicly called him in for questioning.

Myroslava Gongadze, the widow of the slain journalist and the mother of their twin teenage daughters, is now a journalist with Voice of America in Washington, D.C. She thinks that Kravchenko is a convenient scapegoat.

“Still, he is a thread that leads us to the top state officials of that time – Kuchma and Lytvyn,” Myroslava Gongadze said. “Kravchenko didn’t have any personal reasons to kill Georgiy, so it implies that he got the order from top officials.”

Even if it is difficult to prove Kuchma’s complicity in murder, the ex-president is still responsible for appointing and promoting “a criminal” who gave orders to terrorize the people, Myroslava Gongadze said.

Lesya Gongadze, the victim’s mother, also dismissed the prosecutors’ findings.
“What they are trying to do is typical: to lay the blame on a dead man,” Lesya Gongadze said on Sept. 14. “Let God be their judge. What they are doing is covering the tracks of their inactivity.”

Convictions, arrest

Despite three presidential administrations and a changing cast of prosecutors and investigators, incremental progress has been made in the Gongadze case.

In 2008, three police officers who participated in the kidnapping and murder of Gongadze were convicted of the crime and sentenced to at least 12 years in prison. They are Mykola Protasov, Oleksandr Popovych and Valeriy Kostenko.

On July 21, 2009, authorities found Pukach – who allegedly supervised the murder – living in a rural area of Zhytomyr Oblast west of Kyiv.

Valentyn Nalyvaychenko, the former chief of the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) under Yushchenko, said that criminal charges against Pukach should have come a long time ago. The official rationale for the delay is that investigators were waiting on certain test results, while the unofficial possibility is that Pukach was bargaining for leniency.

Pukach’s lawyer, Mykola Laptev, refused comment. Pukach faces a possible life prison sentence if convicted of murder charges.

Kravchenko’s complicity

Kravchenko ran the powerful Interior Ministry, where the nation’s police officers work, from 1995 until early 2001. Kuchma reputedly brought him in to stop the rampant mafia-style murders and contract killing that marred life in newly independent Ukraine.

Gangsters – and those who hired them – were fighting for control of businesses that were all of a sudden up for grabs after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

However, the Kravchenko-led police force committed their own crimes and were notoriously corrupt and politically subservient. In the environment of Kuchma’s authoritarian style of rule, all government critics – especially journalists – became potential targets of the repressive regime.

The murder of Gongadze had an eerily similar parallel to what happened with independent journalist and human rights activist Oleksiy Podolsky, who lived to tell of the incident.

A few months prior to Gongadze’s murder, Kravchenko ordered Pukach to “teach” Podolsky a lesson. His kidnapping was similar to Gongadze’s: Three police officers put him in a car and drove him outside of Kyiv.

The officers threatened him and forced him to dig his own grave. Instead of killing him, the police officers took his belongings and documents and left him in the woods. His apartment door was also set on fire.

According to the Melnychenko tapes, Kravchenko reported on the case to Kuchma; later, police officers were found guilty of threats and assault and sentenced to three years in prison.

Mykola Dzhyha, Kravchenko’s deputy at the time of the murder, a Yanukovych ally and current governor of Vinnytsia Oblast, has rejected the idea that Kravchenko had anything to do with Gongadze’s killing.

“Taking into account the man himself, his character, I can’t believe he would do such a thing,” Dzhyha told the Kyiv Post. But he doesn’t rule out that someone wanted to frighten Gongadze and simply went too far. “That could have happened,” said Dzhyha, whom Pukach also implicated in his testimony.

Kravchenko’s death isn’t the only suspicious one among officials implicated in the Gongadze murder. Eduard Fere and Yuriy Dagaev, other top officials close to Kuchma and Kravchenko, also died mysteriously. Fere went into a coma in 2003 and died six years later. Dagaev died, allegedly of a heart attack, in 2003.

Cover-up to continue?

Besides Melnychenko, the ex-Kuchma bodyguard whose tapes triggered an international scandal, Socialist Party leader Moroz has been close to the Gongadze case since the beginning when, as a member of parliament, he disclosed the recordings publicly.

Today, Moroz thinks that officials are continuing to be engaged in a cover-up of the crime in order to protect Kuchma and Lytvyn.

“For 10 years, Ukraine has been demonstrating to the world the supremacy of cover-up over the law,” Moroz said in a statement on the Socialist Party’s website.

“Maintaining this tradition, the authorities are trying to uphold their honor, though everybody clearly understands that they are simply trying to divert responsibility for the involvement in the crime from high-ranking officials, in particular the ex-president and the head of his administration.”

Then Moroz listed some of the unanswered questions.

“Why did the former minister [Kravchenko] take interest in the journalist? Why did he give (if he did give) the criminal order? What was the reason for chasing the journalist and spying on him? Who sought to lead the [investigation] in the wrong way in the first weeks by giving false evidence? Who was obstructing the unbiased forensic examination?"

"Why didn’t authorities consider the large amount of irrefutable evidence – the recordings of conversations in the office of President Leonid Kuchma, although the investigators actually confirmed all the episodes, recorded by Major Mykola Melnychenko? Why wasn’t parliament controlling the investigation, as it had to, failing to comply with the requirements of PACE (the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe), as it was supposed to do?”

Moroz said the answers to the questions can be found on the Melnychenko tapes.

Melnychenko, meanwhile, has damaged his credibility over the last decade with conflicting, evasive and unreliable comments about the Gongadze case and the recordings he allegedly made. The whereabouts of the original recordings are unknown.

On Sept. 15, Melnychenko said: “I confirm that this was a special operation,” he said referring to the recordings. “I completely confirm that this was a special operation to remove not a legally elected president, but a person who in 1999 seized power. Only later did foreign intelligence services from other countries try to influence the situation.”

After pointing the blame in previous years directly on Kuchma, Melnychenko this week suggested that Lytvyn could have driven Kuchma to the crime.

“Kuchma did not have personal motives to give the order. But Lytvyn did have personal motives. I think he can, himself, tell more about these personnel motives," Melnychenko said.

"Kuchma regularly had all sorts of news reports written – and not written by Gongadze – put on his table … to wind him up. The ideologue of this operation, I declare, was Lytvyn,” Melnychenko added.

Source: Kyiv Post