European court holds Ukrainian government liable in Gongadze case

New York, November 9, 2005—The European Court of Human Rights on Tuesday found the Ukrainian government liable for 100,000 euros in damages in a lawsuit filed by the widow of slain journalist Georgy Gongadze. The court found in favor of Myroslava Gongadze, who claimed the government failed to protect her husband and then failed to properly investigate his 2000 abduction and murder.

The European court, based in Strasbourg, France, has authority to review the actions of domestic courts, issue findings and recommendations, and levy monetary sanctions.

The court ruled that Ukrainian authorities failed in their duty to protect the life of the 31-year-old editor of the independent news Web site Ukrainska Pravda; failed to thoroughly investigate his death by limiting their probe; and treated Myroslava Gongadze in a degrading manner by not giving her access to materials in the case and by issuing contradictory statements. The judgment is equivalent to about US$118,000.

Gongadze filed the lawsuit in September 2002, and the court agreed on March 31 to hear the case. President Viktor Yushchenko’s administration offered Gongadze a settlement of 100,000 euros in exchange for her withdrawing her claim, but Gongadze declined, saying she hoped a court ruling could set a precedent in protecting Ukrainian citizens, according to local press reports.

“By filing this lawsuit, I wanted to urge Ukrainian authorities to fully investigate my husband’s murder and punish organizers and perpetrators of this crime,” Gongadze told Itar-Tass on Wednesday. She added that authorities had hampered the investigation “with their deliberate actions or criminal inertia.”

In its ruling, the court noted that while Gongadze’s decapitated body was found in November 2000, Myroslava Gongadze was not given confirmation that it was her husband until March 2003. “In the meantime,” the court said, “she had received numerous contradictory statements from the authorities about his fate. … [Authorities] constantly refused to grant her full access to the relevant materials in the case file. Only in August 2005 was she allowed access to the file.” Thus, the authorities’ behaviour with regards to Myroslava Gongadze, amounted to degrading treatment, according to the court judgment.

The court also ruled that investigators looking into the murder “seemed to limit the case to prosecution of the direct offenders, and not those who ordered and organized it.”

Most of the government actions cited in the court ruling date to the authoritarian regime of former President Leonid Kuchma. Elected in December 2004, Yushchenko took office in January and said that solving Gongadze’s murder would be a priority for his administration.

Yushchenko’s election did reignite the long-stalled probe. Investigators detained two police officers on March 1. Former Interior Minister Yuri Kravchenko was found dead three days later—his death termed a suicide—just hours before he was scheduled to undergo a sworn interview with investigators. On audiotapes made secretly by a former presidential bodyguard, Kuchma is allegedly heard to ask Kravchenko to get rid of Gongadze; Kravchenko allegedly replied that he would take care of the matter.

On August 1, the prosecutor general’s office announced that it had completed the first phase of its investigation and had identified three suspects: police officers Nikolai Protasov and Valery Kostenko, and Gen. Aleksandr Pukach, former head of the Interior Ministry’s criminal investigation department. Prosecutor General Svyatoslav Piskun said authorities would continue to seek those responsible for ordering the murder.

The next month, a parliamentary commission investigating the case accused Kuchma, the late Kravchenko, Parliament Speaker Vladimir Litvin, and former Ukrainian Security Services chief Leonid Derkach of plotting the editor’s murder. The commission recommended that the prosecutor general open criminal cases against Kuchma, Litvin, and Derkach. The commission, which dissolved after its sensational September 20 announcement, had no judicial authority and prosecutors were not bound to act upon its findings.

On October 14, Yushchenko fired prosecutor Piskun. His office said Piskun had dragged out important investigations for too long, according to press reports.