Suspect in Gongadze murder dies in police custody
by Askold Krushelnytsky
RFE/RL Poland, Belarus and Ukraine Report
An independent Ukrainian journalist group, the Institute for Mass Information (IMI), reported on August 5 that a person regarded as a key suspect in the long-running murder case of journalist Heorhii Gongadze had himself died in police custody.
Ihor Honcharov, an alleged gang leader, had been in custody since his arrest in May on charges of extortion and murder.
Ukraine's Procurator General Sviatoslav Piskun earlier this year said he believed that Mr. Honcharov was linked to the murder of Mr. Gongadze.
An outspoken critic of President Leonid Kuchma and government corruption the journalist disappeared in September 2000. His headless corpse was later discovered, triggering one of Ukraine's biggest post-Soviet scandals.
Nearly four years later, no one has been charged in the murder. A former bodyguard of Mr. Kuchma - who secretly recorded the president - released excerpts that implicated Mr. Kuchma in Mr. Gongadze's disappearance. But President Kuchma has steadfastly denied any link to the journalist's disappearance or death. Ukraine's political opposition and independent journalists - as well as many Western governments and groups - had accused state investigators of deliberately blocking the probe because it might implicate senior government officials, possibly as high up as the president. But investigators last year identified 13 members of a criminal gang they said was led by Mr. Honcharov and which might have knowledge of the murder.
All 13 were apparently former policemen and intelligence officers known as "werewolves" - the term for former police officials who have turned to crime.
Procurator General Piskun said he believed it was likely the so-called "Honcharov band" killed Mr. Gongadze. Mr. Honcharov was scheduled to give evidence about the case later this month.
But now Mr. Honcharov is dead. A Ukrainian police official who did not want to be named confirmed that Mr. Honcharov died on August 1, apparently while being transferred by ambulance from jail to a hospital. He said the cause of death was being investigated.
IMI, which works closely with the France-based journalists' defense group Reporters Without Borders, said Mr. Honcharov's body was cremated on August 3, eliminating any chance of an independent autopsy.
According to IMI, Mr. Honcharov had passed a 17-page handwritten letter to the group to be opened in the event of his death. IMI member Alla Lazareva said the organization has frequently reported on the Gongadze case and that is why she thinks Mr. Honcharov passed the letter to them.
IMI said Mr. Honcharov claimed in the letter to have information about Mr. Gongadze's killers, including audio recordings and a confession that he said he had hidden but was willing to reveal to investigators in the presence of independent witnesses. Mr. Honcharov also predicted he would be murdered by an official - whose name he gives - and that the death would be presented as suicide or illness.
Ms. Lazareva says the IMI's first priority is to establish whether the letter is genuine. "We're not certain yet because we are unable to carry out detailed tests to confirm its authenticity," she added.
To explain why IMI has already published some excerpts from the letter on its website, Ms. Lazareva says, "Our position was this: we obtained this information, we thought that it was of importance to the public and therefore we publicized what we had - although we blacked out some names, because since there is a presumption of innocence until he is proved to be a criminal, one shouldn't refer to him as such."
She said the IMI "does not have the technical capability to check the authenticity of Mr. Honcharov's handwriting. But experts can do this. That's why there are criminologists and specialists at the Procurator General's Office who are obliged by law to carry out this work and to compare Honcharov's handwriting samples taken while he was giving evidence and being kept in jail. They can say whether he wrote this or not."
Ms. Lazareva said that on August 6 IMI handed a copy of the letter to Deputy Chief Prosecutor Viktor Shokin, who was due to question Mr. Honcharov later this month.
"As far as we know, we are not the only ones that have a copy of this letter. A few other people have copies," Ms. Lazareva noted.
She said the Procurator General's Office has promised to keep IMI informed of developments.
"Perhaps now that the Procurator General's Office is involved the cause of death will be investigated. At least I hope so," she said. "Because either this person [Honcharov] really did make all these statements, in which case it's a truly horrible story, or it's a fake and therefore we need to know who did it and why."
The author of a book about the Gongadze killing, Jaroslav Koshiw, said he doubts that investigators will solve the murder. He noted that in the past investigators have named and blamed criminals for Mr. Gongadze's death but have subsequently had to admit they were wrong.
"So really, periodically what we're getting from the authorities is a pretend investigation suggesting to the population that they're ... [abreast of developments], that they are looking for the killers and so on - when really they are not bothering with an investigation," Mr. Koshiw commented.
Mr. Koshiw's book, "Beheaded: The Killing of a Journalist," is a comprehensive analysis of documents, evidence and investigations into the Gongadze case by Ukrainian authorities as well as journalists. Mr. Koshiw said he has no doubt that President Kuchma and other high officials are connected to Mr. Gongadze's death.
"There is more than ample evidence for a trial of the president and his associates who took part in the kidnapping and then the death of Mr. Gongadze," he stated.
Mr. Koshiw said he believes the accusations against Mr. Honcharov were fabricated and the authorities have no desire to find the truth. He added that if Mr. Honcharov was really cremated, that displays either poor judgment or an attempt to prevent the true cause of death from being discovered.
"It shows to me tremendous irresponsibility by the authorities, in this case the police, to so quickly cremate somebody who died in mysterious circumstances and who they were suggesting might have been a possible witness," Mr. Koshiw said. "They create a bizarre atmosphere that helps rumors."
Mr. Koshiw underscored that he believes the truth about the Gongadze murder will only emerge if Ukraine gets a government that really wants to build a state based on law and order.
Copyright © The Ukrainian Weekly, August 31, 2003, No. 35, Vol. LXXI
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