As Gongadze proceedings start, CPJ says much work remains

New York, December 16, 2005—As court proceedings are about to begin against three defendants in the 2000 murder of Internet journalist Georgy Gongadze, the Committee to Protect Journalists urges Ukrainian authorities to identify and prosecute all those responsible for plotting the brutal slaying.

Preliminary hearings are set to begin on Monday in Kyiv against former police officers Valery Kostenko, Nikolai Protasov, and Aleksandr Popovych, according to international news reports. A fourth suspect, Gen. Aleksandr Pukach, former head of the Interior Ministry’s criminal investigation department, is being sought on an arrest warrant, the news agency Interfax reported.

“This is a very important step in bringing to justice those responsible for the murder of our colleague Georgy Gongadze,” CPJ Executive Director Ann Cooper said. “Yet much work remains. We urge Ukrainian authorities not to shy away from an aggressive pursuit of every lead—no matter how high a level it may reach.”

The defendants are charged with premeditated murder and abuse of power in office in the killing of Gongadze, editor of the independent news Web site Ukrainska Pravda, Interfax said. The prosecutor general’s office said it is continuing to investigate those who may have ordered the killing.

Gongadze’s murder was among the catalysts for the popular uprising in late 2004 that ousted former President Leonid Kuchma’s corrupt government and propelled reformist President Viktor Yushchenko to power. Allegations of high-level government involvement in the Gongadze murder had dogged Kuchma throughout his final term.

On audiotapes made secretly by a former presidential bodyguard, Kuchma is allegedly heard to instruct Kravchenko to “drive out” Gongadze and “give him to the Chechens,” according to transcripts obtained by news agencies. Also in March, the Interior Ministry acknowledged that its officers had conducted surveillance of Gongadze shortly before he was abducted.

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

The presidential bodyguard, Mykola Melnychenko, returned to Ukraine on November 30 after a five-year absence. He is expected to be among the prosecution witnesses. Melnychenko told reporters he was “back for justice to triumph and Kuchma to be held responsible,” The Associated Press reported.

Gongadze’s family has repeatedly complained about the slow progress of the investigation, particularly the efforts to identify and prosecute the masterminds.