CPJ alarmed by manipulation of Gongadze investigation

New York, March 2, 2011–The Committee to Protect Journalists is deeply disturbed by the recent actions of Ukrainian authorities that threaten to upend progress in the 10-year-old investigation into the September 2000 abduction and murder of independent journalist Georgy Gongadze, at left. The Kyiv Court of Appeals ruled today to reject a second appeal by Myroslava Gongadze, the journalist’s widow, against the prosecutorial downgrading of the status of the murder from a contract killing to a “killing on verbal command.”

The new status of the case, in effect, pegs the responsibility for commissioning the crime on a single culprit–a dead interior minister–and technically precludes investigators from going after a larger circle of suspected masterminds. A two-year-long trial of three suspected accomplices in Gongadze’s murder ended in 2008 with convictions, but no one has been held responsible thus far for masterminding the crime. Prosecutors have failed to investigate former and current high-ranking officials–including former President Leonid Kuchma and then-head of presidential administration and current Parliament Speaker Vladimir Litvin–who have long been suspected of being involved in Gongadze’s killing.

“This is nothing but an attempt by the authorities to close off further prosecutions in the murder of Georgy Gongadze,” CPJ Europe and Central Asia Program Coordinator Nina Ognianova said. “All perpetrators of this heinous crime, regardless of their rank, influence, and position, must be brought to justice.”

The Kyiv Court of Appeals ruling comes on the heels of procedural violations committed by investigating authorities in the case. In a March 1 public letter to Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, CPJ laid out its concerns about seeming official attempts to quickly wrap up the most significant stage of the Gongadze investigation.

Gongadze, 31, editor of the independent Internet newspaper Ukrainska Pravdawhich often criticized the policies of then President Leonid Kuchma–was last seen on September 16, 2000, leaving the home of a colleague to meet his wife and two young children. His headless body was discovered in a forest outside the town of Tarashcha two months later.

Persistent allegations of high-level government involvement in the murder have lingered since late November 2000, when an opposition leader released tape recordings of what he claimed were conversations between Kuchma, his chief of staff (and current parliament speaker), Vladimir Litvin, and then-Interior Minister Yuri Kravchenko. On the tapes–transcripts of which were carried by news agencies–three male voices discuss various ways of “dealing” with Gongadze. Kuchma and Litvin have repeatedly denied involvement. In 2005, Kravchenko was found dead in his apartment just hours before his scheduled questioning in the Gongadze case. Authorities said he had committed suicide but was found to have been killed by two shots in the head.