September 16, 2000, in Kyiv, UkraineGongadze, editor of the news Web site Ukrainska Pravda (www.pravda.com.ua), which often featured critical articles about President Leonid Kuchma and other Ukrainian government officials, disappeared in Kyiv. In late November, a massive political scandal erupted after an opposition leader released an audiotape that seemed to implicate Kuchma and two senior aides in Gongadze's disappearance.
Gongadze, 31, left the home of a colleague at 10:20 p.m. to meet his wife and two young children at home. He never arrived. The police launched an investigation, while the Ukrainian Parliament formed a special commission to examine the case.
Shortly after Gongadze disappeared, Deputy Interior Minister Mykola Dzhyha announced that authorities were considering three possible scenarios: that Gongadze had staged his own abduction, that he had been involved in an accident, or that the abduction was related to his journalism.
On September 19, however, Dzhyha announced that the police had ruled out any political motive. The police then suggested that the disappearance was related to Gongadze's personal life. CPJ expressed serious doubts about the credibility of the investigation in a September 25 letter to President Kuchma.
On the night of November 2-3, a farmer discovered a headless corpse outside the town of
Tarashcha, and local journalists immediately speculated that it might be Gongadze's. On
November 6, regional officials visited Tarashcha to conduct an investigation.
The officials quickly announced that the advanced decomposition of the body placed the time of death well before the date of Gongadze's disappearance. They did not ask anyone from the journalist's family to identify the body, however. Despite the local coroner's pleas to have the body removed, it remained in an unrefrigerated morgue in Tarashcha, where it continued to decompose.
Persistent rumors of a cover-up led several of Gongadze's colleagues to visit Tarashcha on November 15. Based on jewelry found at the scene and an X-ray of the corpse's hand, which showed an old shrapnel injury matching one that Gongadze had suffered while covering the conflict in Abkhazia, a region of Georgia, they concluded that the corpse was indeed Gongadze's.
The local coroner issued a death certificate to the group confirming their findings and offered to turn over the body to them. But when the journalists returned to the morgue with a car and a coffin, they found that the state prosecutor had already removed the corpse and transported it to Kyiv for DNA testing. In late November, the prosecutor's office launched a half-hearted effort to secure blood samples from Gongadze's family, only obtaining the samples in mid-December.
On November 28, Oleksandr Moroz, the leader of the Socialist Party and a longtime rival of President Kuchma, released tape recordings of what he claimed were conversations between Kuchma, Presidential Chief of Staff Vladimir Litvin, and Interior Minister Yury Kravchenko. On the tape, three male voices discuss various ways of "dealing" with Gongadze. In casual, profanity-laced tones, they discuss undercover surveillance, deporting him back to his native Georgia, prosecuting him in Ukraine, or having a group of Chechens kidnap him. The speakers are clearly concerned about Gongadze's journalism. "You give me this same one at Ukrainska Pravda and we will start to decide what to do with him," one says. "He's simply gone too far."
Moroz claimed he had received the tapes in mid-October from an unnamed former officer of the Special Communication Detachment of Ukraine's State Security Service (SBU) who was responsible for communications security within President Kuchma's office, the Kyiv Post reported. Moroz said he had delayed releasing the tapes until late November in order to have them authenticated by foreign experts, and to give the source's family time to leave the country.
In early December, three Ukrainian Parliament deputies traveled to an undisclosed European Union country and videotaped their meeting with the officer, who was identified as Mykola Melnychenko, a 34-year-old major. On the video, Major Melnychenko claims that he secretly recorded Kuchma's conversations by placing a digital audio recorder under a sofa in the president's office. Melnychenko justifies his actions by saying, "I gave my oath of allegiance to Ukraine, to the people of Ukraine. I did not break my oath. I did not swear allegiance to Kuchma to perform his criminal orders."
At year's end, the tapes had not yet been authenticated by a neutral third party. But it seemed credible for several reasons, according to a CPJ source close to the investigation who did not wish to be identified. The informal manner of speaking and frequent use of expletives match Kuchma's conversational style. Also, researchers from the Dutch Institute of Applied Scientific Research, hired by a Dutch tabloid to evaluate the tapes, concluded that the recordings had not been doctored, although they were unable to identify the voices conclusively, the Kyiv Post reported. And while Moroz was a bitter rival of Kuchma, he was known to be relatively cautious in making accusations against other politicians, particularly the president.
Kuchma flatly denied that he had anything to do with Gongadze's disappearance and described the Moroz tape as a "provocation," according to the ITAR-TASS news agency.
The government's agitated response to the scandal only fueled public suspicion. A presidential spokesman denied Moroz's allegations on the same day that he made them. Meanwhile, a local prosecutor announced he was launching a criminal investigation into Moroz's alleged "insults and slander" against President Kuchma.
On December 4, just as the allegations against Kuchma were gaining momentum, Kyiv police announced that Gongadze had died in an attempted robbery. But by then, public confidence in the investigation had dwindled to a point where some opposition politicians were even questioning whether the body being examined in Kyiv was the same corpse that was found in Tarashcha.
On December 18, Gongadze's wife, Myroslava, identified the jewelry found by the body in Tarashcha as belonging to her husband. And although the corpse was badly decomposed, she claimed to recognize her husband's foot.
In late December, German forensic experts determined that the corpse found in Tarashcha was indeed Gongadze's, according to the German news agency Deutsche Presse-Agentur. The Ukrainian government promised to conduct DNA tests but had not yet done so by early January.
Beats Covered: Corruption
Local or Foreign: Local
Type of Death: Murder
Suspected Source of Fire: Government Officials
Taken Captive: Yes
- 1,000 deaths: Journalists who gave their lives, August 15, 2013
- News of convictions in journalist murders sadly infrequent, May 15, 2013
- Despite official comments, no progress in Gongadze case, February 21, 2013
- In Gongadze case, a milestone toward justice , January 29, 2013
- Attacks on the Press in 2011: Fighting Impunity, February 21, 2012