Ukraine to investigate Kuchma in Gongadze murder

New York, March 22, 2011–The Committee to Protect Journalists welcomes news that Ukrainian prosecutors have opened an investigation into allegations that former President Leonid Kuchma had a role in the 2000 abduction and murder of independent journalist Georgy Gongadze, left. CPJ called on Ukrainian investigators today to clarify the focus of the investigation and conduct it in a thorough and transparent manner.

Deputy Prosecutor General of Ukraine Renat Kuzmin told a press conference in Kyiv today that a “criminal case has been opened in relation to Kuchma. He is suspected of involvement in illegal actions and the murder of Gongadze.” Kuzmin said authorities are not allowing the former president to leave the country for now, Reuters said.

Kuzmin did not specify potential criminal charges or say whether prosecutors will investigate any other government officials. The website of the prosecutor general’s office did not immediately publish any additional information related to the probe. Valentina Telychenko, lawyer for Gongadze’s widow, Myroslava, told CPJ that prosecutors had not contacted her about today’s development.

In a public letter to President Viktor Yanukovych this month, CPJ urged the Ukrainian leader to ensure that all perpetrators in the Gongadze case–including suspected masterminds–are prosecuted.

“We welcome the long-overdue investigation of former President Leonid Kuchma in the murder of our colleague Georgy Gongadze and call on authorities to conduct it in an independent, transparent, and thorough manner,” CPJ Europe and Central Asia Program Coordinator Nina Ognianova said. “We urge authorities to investigate all suspects and keep the Gongadze family timely informed.”

Gongadze, 31, editor of the online news outlet Ukrainska Pravda, a critic of Kuchma’s policies, vanished on September 16, 2000, after 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.

Three Interior Ministry officers have been convicted and a senior ministry official has been indicted in the slaying. But persistent allegations of high-level government have followed the case since November 2000, when an opposition leader released audio recordings of what he claimed were conversations between Kuchma and two other officials: Vladimir Litvin, the president’s chief of staff and current parliament speaker; and Interior Minister Yuri Kravchenko, who is now deceased. On the tapes–transcripts of which were reported 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. Although Kravchenko suffered two gunshots to the head, authorities said he had committed suicide.