On September 16, 2000, Georgy Gongadze, editor of the news Web site Ukrainska Pravda, which often featured critical articles about President Leonid Kuchma and other Ukrainian government officials, disappeared in Kyiv. In late November, a massive political scandal erupted after an opposition leader released an audiotape that seemed to implicate Kuchma and two senior aides in Gongadze’s disappearance.
Gongadze, 31, left the home of a colleague at 10:20 p.m. to meet his wife and two young children at home. He never arrived. The police launched an investigation, while the Ukrainian Parliament formed a special commission to examine the case.
Shortly after Gongadze disappeared, Deputy Interior Minister Mykola Dzhyha announced that authorities were considering three possible scenarios: that Gongadze had staged his own abduction, that he had been involved in an accident, or that the abduction was related to his journalism.
On September 19, however, Dzhyha announced that the police had ruled out any political motive. The police then suggested that the disappearance was related to Gongadze’s personal life. CPJ expressed serious doubts about the credibility of the investigation in a September 25 letter to President Kuchma.
On the night of November 2-3, a farmer discovered a headless corpse outside the town of Tarashcha, and local journalists immediately speculated that it might be Gongadze. On November 6, regional officials visited Tarashcha to conduct an investigation.
The officials quickly announced that the advanced decomposition of the body placed the time of death well before the date of Gongadze’s disappearance. They did not ask anyone from the journalist’s family to identify the body, however. Despite the local coroner’s pleas to have the body removed, it remained in an unrefrigerated morgue in Tarashcha, where it continued to decompose.
Persistent rumors of a cover-up led several of Gongadze’s colleagues to visit Tarashcha on November 15. Based on jewelry found at the scene and an X-ray of the corpse’s hand, which showed an old shrapnel injury matching one that Gongadze had suffered while covering the conflict in Abkhazia, a region of Georgia, they concluded that the corpse was indeed Gongadze’s.
The local coroner issued a death certificate to the group confirming their findings and offered to turn over the body to them. But when the journalists returned to the morgue with a car and a coffin, they found that the state prosecutor had already removed the corpse and transported it to Kyiv for DNA testing. In late November, the prosecutor’s office launched a half-hearted effort to secure blood samples from Gongadze’s family, only obtaining the samples in mid-December.
On November 28, Oleksandr Moroz, the leader of the Socialist Party and a longtime rival of President Kuchma, released tape recordings of what he claimed were conversations between Kuchma, Presidential Chief of Staff Vladimir Litvin, and Interior Minister Yury Kravchenko. On the tape, three male voices discuss various ways of "dealing" with Gongadze. In casual, profanity-laced tones, they discuss undercover surveillance, deporting him back to his native Georgia, prosecuting him in Ukraine, or having a group of Chechens kidnap him. The speakers were clearly concerned about Gongadze’s journalism. "You give me this same one at Ukrainska Pravda and we will start to decide what to do with him," one says. "He’s simply gone too far."
Moroz claimed he had received the tapes in mid-October from an unnamed former officer of the Special Communication Detachment of Ukraine’s State Security Service (SBU) who was responsible for communications security within President Kuchma’s office, the Kyiv Post reported. Moroz said he had delayed releasing the tapes until late November in order to have them authenticated by foreign experts, and to give the source’s family time to leave the country.
In early December, three Ukrainian Parliament deputies traveled to an undisclosed European Union country and videotaped their meeting with the officer, who was identified as Mykola Melnychenko, a 34-year-old major. On the video, Major Melnychenko claims that he secretly recorded Kuchma’s conversations by placing a digital audio recorder under a sofa in the president’s office. Melnychenko justifies his actions by saying, "I gave my oath of allegiance to Ukraine, to the people of Ukraine. I did not break my oath. I did not swear allegiance to Kuchma to perform his criminal orders."
At year’s end, the tapes had not yet been authenticated by a neutral third party. But they seemed credible for several reasons, according to a CPJ source close to the investigation who did not wish to be identified. The informal manner of speaking and frequent use of expletives match Kuchma’s conversational style. Also, researchers from the Dutch Institute of Applied Scientific Research, hired by a Dutch tabloid to evaluate the tapes, concluded that the recordings had not been doctored, although they were unable to identify the voices conclusively, the Kyiv Post reported. And while Moroz was a bitter rival of Kuchma, he was known to be relatively cautious in making accusations against other politicians, particularly the president.
Kuchma flatly denied that he had anything to do with Gongadze’s disappearance and described the Moroz tape as a "provocation," according to the ITAR-TASS news agency.
The government’s agitated response to the scandal only fueled public suspicion. A presidential spokesman denied Moroz’s allegations on the same day that he made them. Meanwhile, a local prosecutor announced he was launching a criminal investigation into Moroz’s alleged "insults and slander" against President Kuchma.
On December 4, just as the allegations against Kuchma were gaining momentum, Kyiv police announced that Gongadze had died in an attempted robbery. But by then, public confidence in the investigation had dwindled to a point where some opposition politicians were even questioning whether the body being examined in Kyiv was the same corpse that was found in Tarashcha.
On December 18, Gongadze’s wife, Myroslava, identified the jewelry found by the body in Tarashcha as belonging to her husband. And although the corpse was badly decomposed, she claimed to recognize her husband’s foot.
In late December 2000, German forensic experts determined that the corpse found in Tarashcha was indeed Gongadze’s, according to the German news agency Deutsche Presse-Agentur. The Ukrainian government conducted DNA tests in early January 2001, which showed a 99.6 percent probability that the corpse was indeed Gongadze’s, the U.S. Congress-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) reported at the time.
In September 2005, a Ukrainian parliamentary commission investigating the journalist’s death accused Kuchma and three senior officials of plotting the murder, Ukrainska Pravda reported. The commission named Kuchma, Kravchenko, Litvin, and Leonid Derkach, former head of the SBU, as the masterminds behind the murder, CPJ reported at the time. The commission’s findings were based on Moroz’s tapes, Ukrainska Pravda reported.
On March 15, 2008, a Kyiv court of appeals sentenced Mykola Protasov, Valeriy Kostenko, and Oleksandr Popovych, all former members of the police force, to 12 to 13-year prison sentences as accomplices to the crime, according to CPJ reporting at the time and the Kyiv Post.
Their trial began in January 2006, and final proceedings took place in February 2008, CPJ reported. The three police officers helped Aleksei Pukach, who served under Kravchenko as head of the ministry’s external surveillance service, kidnap Gongadze and the accomplices beat and punched Gongadze in the torso before Pukach strangled him to death, according to that report.
In March 2011, Kuchma was formally charged with “abuse of power” in connection with the killing, according to news reports. In December 2011, a Kiev court dismissed a criminal case against Kuchma that had implicated him in Gongadze’s murder, the Wall Street Journal reported.
On January 29, 2013, a Pechersk district court found Pukach guilty of murdering the journalist, and sentenced him to life in prison, according to news reports. Pukach confessed to the crime but claimed that he had murdered Gongadze on orders from then Minister of Interior Yuriy Kravchenko, who was found dead in an alleged suicide on March 4, 2005—two days before he was to be questioned by prosecutors, the New York Times reported.
On January 6, 2016, Pukach lost an appeal on his case before the Kiev court of appeals, Ukrainska Pravda reported. In October 2017, he filed an appeal with Ukraine’s Supreme Court to have his life sentence lifted, Kyiv Post reported.
“Pukach is a dangerous man who, by many accounts, was involved in the harassment of and crimes against journalists and political activists in Ukraine. His release would show the weakness of Ukrainian court system and would be a serious hit to media freedom in Ukraine,” the journalist’s widow, Myroslava Gongadze, told CPJ via messaging app on September 16, 2019.
If the court rules in Pukach’s favor, he could be immediately released, Gongadze told CPJ and Kyiv Post reported.