Court closes portions of Gongadze trial

New York, January 23, 2006—The Kyiv Court of Appeals moved today to close to the public significant portions of the trial of three men charged in the 2000 abduction and murder of Internet journalist Georgy Gongadze. Journalists and a lawyer representing Gongadze’s family criticized the decision, saying it would keep the case out of the public eye, local and international press reports said.

The appellate panel headed by Judge Irina Grigoryeva barred the press and public from attending the testimony of the defendants and government security agents. The public is also barred from proceedings at which materials containing state secrets are to be considered. The court will decide what hearings will be accessible as the case proceeds, local reports said.

The trial of former police officers Valery Kostenko, Nikolai Protasov, and Aleksandr Popovych reconvened today after a two-week pause. The hearings started on January 9 but were postponed after Protasov suffered a hypertension attack in court. Protasov’s lawyer argued that media presence aggravated his client’s health, The Associated Press reported.

Andrei Fedur, a lawyer representing Gongadze’s family, criticized the court decision, which effectively closes most of the proceedings. “Society will not know what is happening here,” the AP quoted Fedur as saying. “There are no legal grounds for this.” Fedur said the court closed certain hearings because high-ranking officials would be called to testify, the AP said.

“The integrity of the government’s prosecution is undermined by a secretive process,” CPJ Executive Director Ann Cooper said. “Given the allegations of high-level involvement in this terrible murder, closing the proceeding is the last thing the government should do if it wants to ensure a credible outcome. State secrets can be guarded without the wholesale closing of the trial.”

The three defendants are charged with premeditated murder and abuse of power in the killing of Gongadze, editor of the independent news Web site Ukrainska Pravda, Interfax said. The prosecutor general’s office said it continues to search for the crime’s masterminds.

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 dogged Kuchma throughout his final term.

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 prosecutors open criminal cases against Kuchma, Litvin, and Derkach. The commission’s findings were not binding on prosecutors.

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 today, the appellate panel rejected a defense request to summon Kuchma, Derkach, Litvin, and former presidential bodyguard Mykola Melnychenko to testify. The court said the request was premature, according to the Kyiv-based television channel Inter.