New York, March 17, 2008—An appeals court in the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, convicted on Saturday three suspects in the 2000 abduction and murder of Internet journalist Georgy Gongadze. The court sentenced a former police officer, Nikolai Protasov, to 13 years in prison; his fellow officers, Valery Kostenko and Aleksandr Popovych, were given 12-year terms. A fourth suspect—head of the Interior Ministry’s criminal investigation department under former President Leonid Kuchma, Gen. Aleksei Pukach—is still being sought on an international arrest warrant. The masterminds of the crime are still at large, according to international press reports and CPJ sources.
The trial, which started in January 2006, was adjourned multiple times before finally reopening for its final stretch in February. The Kyiv Appeals Court partially closed proceedings to the public, due to sensitive witness testimony, according to news reports.
“We welcome the long-sought convictions in our colleague Georgy Gongadze’s slaying as a much-needed first step toward reversing the impunity in this brutal crime,” CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon said. “We now call on Ukrainian authorities to build on this significant momentum to seek out the masterminds behind the killing.”
Gongadze’s widow, journalist Myroslava Gongadze, told CPJ she is relieved by the court ruling. “But until the masterminds and the organizers of Georgy’s murder are brought to justice, the case is not over,” she said. “Saturday’s verdict is an important step in the investigation, yet it is not the final one.”
Georgy Gongadze, an investigative journalist critical of then-president Leonid Kuchma, went missing in Kyiv on September 16, 2000; two months later his decapitated body was found in a forest outside the city. Gongadze, the pioneer editor of critical Internet newspaper Ukrayinska Pravda (Ukrainian Truth), had long angered authorities with his highly critical reports detailing corruption in Kuchma’s administration.
In December 2000, Kuchma’s former bodyguard, Mykola Melnichenko, claimed he had secretly recorded conversations between Kuchma and senior government officials who allegedly discussed ways of silencing Gongadze.
Melnichenko never provided the original tapes to Ukrainian prosecutors. However, while the tapes were authenticated abroad they were not allowed to be submitted into evidence. On the tapes, Kuchma is allegedly heard instructing former Interior Minister Yuri Kravchenko to “drive out” Gongadze and “give him to the Chechens,” according to transcripts obtained by news agencies. The Interior Ministry acknowledged that its officers conducted surveillance of Gongadze shortly before he was abducted.
In April 2005, the prosecutor general’s office announced that it had arrested two suspects in Gongadze’s murder—Valery Kostenko and Nikolai Protasov—a third suspect, Aleksandr Popovych, was identified later that year. A fourth suspect—General Aleksei Pukach—is being sought as the organizer of the murder who was directed by the masterminds.