Doubts remain in Gongadze case
by Askold Krushelnycky
RFE/RL Poland, Belarus and Ukraine Report
Ukraine's internal affairs minister, Yurii Smirnov, recently announced that police had solved the murder of opposition journalist Heorhii Gongadze. The case of the journalist's death last autumn has become a national sensation. Allegations that President Leonid Kuchma might be involved in the murder have led to widespread demonstrations calling for Mr. Kuchma's ouster.
But on May 14, Mr. Smirnov said the killing had not been politically motivated. He said Gongadze's murderers were common criminals who later were murdered themselves. A map showing the location of Mr. Gongadze's grave had been found on one of their bodies, he added.
Mr. Smirnov went on to say that those responsible for the killings of the two murderers are now in custody. He also referred to the involvement of a mysterious crime boss nicknamed "Cyclops." He added that "as [internal affairs] minister, I consider the crime to be resolved. We have proof concerning the criminals, who have died, to our sorrow."
Mr. Smirnov's announcement, however, does not spell an end to the case. The Ukrainian press has reported that the Prosecutor-General's Office, in comments to the lawyer of Mr. Gongadze's mother, Lesia, called Mr. Smirnov's statement "premature" and said that the matter has not yet been concluded. Deputy Procurator General Mykola Obikhod said his office will issue a full response to Mr. Smirnov's statement this week.
Many opposition politicians - as well as Mr. Gongadze's widow, Myroslava - have called Mr. Smirnov's announcement a deliberate attempt to confuse the public and deflect attention from President Kuchma's possible role in the murder.
Myroslava Gongadze says Mr. Smirnov's version of events is, in fact, a fabrication. "Right now we're witnessing the latest in a series of announcements which, in my opinion, Internal Affairs Minister Smirnov had no right to make," she said.
"[I say this] because the investigation is being conducted by the Prosecutor- General's Office, and only the Prosecutor General's Office can say whether the matter has really been concluded and talk about the results of the investigation. Therefore, I have no reason to trust [Smirnov's] announcement. Actually, I haven't trusted him for a long time, and in the present situation I have even more reason to distrust him," she added.
The investigation into the disappearance and murder of Mr. Gongadze has been plagued by confusion and conflicting information from the start. The Internet journalist disappeared from Kyiv last September. The following month, a headless corpse - later identified as his - was found in a woods south of the city.
Mr. Gongadze had been an outspoken critic of President Kuchma, who he claimed was involved in corrupt business dealings.
A former Kuchma bodyguard then came forward with audio recordings he said he had secretly made of conversations between the president and his advisers. The recordings appeared to show that Kuchma had wanted action taken to silence the outspoken journalist.
President Kuchma has consistently denied the authenticity of the recordings. But his political opponents - and thousands of ordinary Ukrainians - are convinced the recordings prove the president's involvement in Gongadze's death. Mass demonstrations have followed, with protesters calling for Mr. Kuchma's resignation.
The official investigation into the Gongadze murder also has been criticized by Mr. Gongadze's relatives and a number of Ukrainian politicians. Some Western governments and entities, such as the Council of Europe, have also expressed doubts that the investigation is being conducted in a proper and transparent manner.
Ukrainian authorities at varying times have alleged that the corpse found in the woods outside Kyiv is not Mr. Gongadze's, and for months refused to allow the journalist's relatives to examine the remains.
Oleksander Kryvenko, a spokesman for the opposition Forum for National Salvation, described Mr. Smirnov's version of the murder as a "fairy tale." He said it is obvious that criminals murdered the journalist, but that that in itself does not exclude a political motive.
Mr. Gongadze's widow, who is now in the United States after being granted political asylum last month, said the police in the past had deliberately muddled the investigation into her husband's death and continue to do so now.
"The fact is that, in this matter, the Procurator General and the police have distinguished themselves with many statements which later have not been substantiated and where, in a normal society, they would have had to be corrected. From the very beginning there were announcements that it was not a politically motivated matter, and then that the corpse that was found had been reburied there, and so forth. The police made these announcements, and when the Procurator General's Office investigated, they could not substantiate the police claims," Mrs. Gongadze told RFE/RL.
Ukraine's Internal Affairs Ministry was reluctant to comment on the Procurator General's continuing investigation into the case. A ministry spokesman, who preferred to remain anonymous, said Mr. Smirnov is not prepared to issue any more details regarding the Gongadze case.
"The minister said that he is not going to discuss the details. That's probably because the Procurator General is still investigating. [There are ] probably still some outstanding matters [that] need to be cleared up," the spokesman told RFE/RL.
The spokesman denied that there are any serious differences between the Internal Affairs Ministry and the Procurator General's Office. "I can't make any conclusions. You as a journalist have to draw your own conclusions. There has been a concrete announcement by Mr. Smirnov. As for the Procurator General's Office, I don't know, because I don't work there," the spokesman noted.
Askold Krushelnycky is an RFE/RL correspondent.
Copyright © The Ukrainian Weekly, June 3, 2001, No. 22, Vol. LXIX
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