Ukraine15 September 2003
Georgy Gongadze vanished three years ago
Reporters Without Borders today deplored the failure of the Ukrainian authorities to solve the murder of journalist Georgy Gongadze, editor of the online newspaper www.pravda.com.ua, who disappeared on 16 September 2000.
"After three years of investigation and despite your repeated announcements that the case was about to be resolved, no significant evidence has been produced to explain why he was murdered and his killers are still at large," said Reporters Without Borders secretary-general Robert Ménard in a letter to Ukrainian prosecutor-general Sviatoslav Piskun.
"We are still waiting for those who were responsible, at all levels, to be named and punished. We will not be satisfied with just charging those who carried out the dreadful crime. We ask you to consider and check out all the statements made in the letters of the late Igor Goncharov, as well as the conclusions of the parliamentary investigation into the murder and the recordings made by Mykola Melnichenko," Ménard said.
The murder enquiry has made no significant progress this year. Court officials in Tarashcha, the small town near Kiev where Gongadze’s body was found, were convicted of forging documents, negligence and abuse of authority, but were amnestied and freed in April and May this year.
A key witness in the case, former police detective Igor Goncharov, died in prison of 1 August in very mysterious circumstances and his body was cremated three days later. He had been arrested in May 2002 for alleged involvement in killings by a group of thugs and former policemen. He refused several times to give evidence to the prosecutor, saying he was afraid of being killed in prison if he did.
In a letter he wrote, obtained by the Ukrainian Institute of Mass Information (IMI) and certified as genuine by the prosecutor-general’s office, he spoke of the crimes he had been jailed for, including the Gongadze murder.
He said they had been carried out on the orders of the then interior minister, Yuri Kravchenko, and his successor, Yuri Smirnov. He said top government officials, including President Leonid Kuchma, were aware of and involved in the kidnappings and murders. Kravchenko is head of the national taxation department and Smirnov is a presidential adviser.
An opposition politician disclosed in November 2000 that a tape-recording had been made by a secret police officer, Mykola Melnichenko, of a meeting in Kuchma’s office where a person, apparently Kravchenko, is heard to say that he has people who can get rid of Gongadze, "really tough guys, ready to do whatever you ask."
Gongadze fought strongly for press freedom and was very critical of the government. He was very outspoken during the 1999 presidential election campaign. When he and four other journalists questioned Kuchma during a debate on the national TV station 1 + 1, he openly accused Kravchenko of corruption and undermining civil liberties, especially press freedom.
When Gongadze went to the United States, from December 1999 to January 2000, a few days before an official visit by President Kuchma, he met State Department and Congressional officials, the media and the large Ukrainian diaspora. He distributed a statement signed by 60 Ukrainian journalists criticising curbs on press freedom in Ukraine and held a press conference about it. He was also actively involved in opposing an April 2000 referendum to boost presidential powers.
In the months before he vanished, Gongadze was spied on by the state militia and followed by strangers in a car with militia number-plates. He said he was frightened and had complained of "deliberate provocation to intimidate me or at least stop me doing my job as a journalist" in an open letter to prosecutor-general Mikhailo Potebenko on 14 July 2000. But legal officials did not take seriously the threats against him.
Gongadze, who was 31, disappeared on 16 September 2000 and his headless and mutilated body was found on 2 November that year. A Reporters Without Borders fact-finding mission in January 2001 detailed the very serious legal mistakes made in the case. It said prosecutor-general Potebenko, who was elected to parliament in March 2001, conducted the enquiry with the primary aim of protecting the government from grave accusations against it.
Gongadze’s widow Myroslava and his mother Lessia have been systematically excluded from the enquiry and until January 2001 were refused the right to be civil parties in the case. Myroslava filed a complaint before the European Court of Human Rights against the Ukrainian government on 16 September last year.