CPJ calls for prompt independent investigation of Gongadze disappearance

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New York, December 15, 2000 — In the wake of allegations linking President Leonid Kuchma and two top aides to the September 16 disappearance of independent journalist Georgy Gongadze, CPJ urges President Kuchma and his government to avoid the appearance of impropriety by appointing an independent prosecutor to lead the investigation.

“President Kuchma has a responsibility to ensure that any crime which may have been committed in his name is investigated by authorities whose objectivity cannot be called into question,” said CPJ executive director Ann Cooper. “For this reason, we urge the president to appoint an independent prosecutor with a mandate to investigate the case, find the perpetrators, and bring them to trial.”

The allegations were made by Oleksandr Moroz, the leader of the Socialist Party and a longtime rival of President Kuchma. On November 28, Moroz 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, a Ukrainian journalist whose Internet news site, Ukrainska Pravda had exposed corruption scandals involving Kuchma, senior intelligence officials, and local business leaders. 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.”

English translations of excerpts from the tape are posted on the Web site at Kyiv Post.

Moroz claimed he received the tapes in mid-October from a 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 initially refused to identify this officer and said he 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 34-year-old Major Mykola Melnychenko. On the video, Melnychenko claims that he secretly recorded Kuchma’s conversations by placing a digital audio recorder under a sofa in the president’s office. Melnychenko justified 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.”

While the tape has yet to be definitively authenticated by a neutral third party, it seems 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 conclusively identify the voices, the Kyiv Post reported.

And while Moroz is a bitter rival of Kuchma, he is known to be relatively cautious in making accusations against other politicians, particularly the president.

The government’s agitated response to the scandal has only fuelled 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 “insults and slander” against President Kuchma.

Gongadze was a pioneer among Ukrainian journalists in that he chose to publish his work on the Internet. Because Ukrainska Pravda did not depend on paper supplies and printing presses, bureaucrats found it harder to interfere with its distribution. But like the few other investigative journalists in Ukraine who have dared to criticize the government, Gongadze faced frequent harassment and intimidation. On the evening of September 16, he disappeared on his way home from work.

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. 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 conduct their own investigation in 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 the corpse was indeed Gongadze.

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 December 4, just as the allegations against Kuchma were gaining momentum, Kyiv police announced they had uncovered “evidence” that Gongadze had died in an attempted robbery. But at this point, public confidence in the investigation has dwindled to a point where some opposition politicians are even questioning whether the body being examined in Kyiv is the same corpse that was found in Tarashcha.