The Gongadze trial: a lot too little, a lot too late

The Gongadze trial: a lot too little, a lot too late

Nearly four years after the Orange Revolution and almost eight since Gongadze`s headless body was found in a wood outside Kyiv, the people who ordered the murder have still not been brought to justice. Instead, a court has handed out jail terms to...

Modern Ukrainian politics were born of the country`s 2004 Orange Revolution, in which Western-reformer Viktor Yushchenko defeated the fraud-filled presidential bid of Moscow`s favorite, Viktor Yanukovych. But the revolution was conceived in 2000 with the grisly murder of thirty-one-year-old journalist Georgiy Gongadze, who had dared to write about abuse of power in Kyiv. As other journalists critical of the authorities were killed, and evidence mounted that the police were perpetrating the crimes, domestic and international indignation surged. Politicians like Yushchenko, current Prime Minister Yuliya Tymoshenko and Socialist leader Oleksandr Moroz capitalized on the public dissent to further discredit the corrupt administration of President Leonid Kuchma, who had hand-picked Yanukovych as his successor. During their rise to power, the three Orange leaders promised their countrymen change, prosperity and justice.

Nearly four years after the Orange Revolution and almost eight since Gongadze`s headless body was found in a wood outside Kyiv, the people who ordered the murder have still not been brought to justice. Instead, a court has handed out jail terms to three former policemen who took part in the killing. On Saturday, March 15, the Kyiv Court of Appeals sentenced Colonel Mykola Protasov, Colonel Valeriy Kostenko and Major Oleksandr Popovych to 13, 12 and 12 years in prison, respectively.

The panel of judges had convicted the three officers from the Interior Ministry`s Department of External Surveillance and Criminal Intelligence of kidnapping and murdering Gongadze on September 16, 2000. Popovych drove the car, and the other two held Gongadze over a hole dug in the wood, while their boss Oleksiy Pukach allegedly strangled Gongadze with the journalist`s own belt. All three said they never knew that Pukach intended to kill him.

Pukach, who headed the department of external surveillance and criminal intelligence at the time of Gongazde`s murder, is still at large. He managed to flee Ukraine in 2003. But before doing so, in June 2002, General Pukach allegedly kidnapped and strangled another Ukrainian journalist in a wood, this time in Chernihiv Region. As in the Gongadze case, two of Pukach`s subordinates, a colonel and major, were tried and convicted of their part in the killing of Oleksiy Podolsky. In May of last year, they received three-years prison sentences.

Against the backdrop of Gongadze`s murder and that of Donetsk TV chief Ihor Oleksandrov, who was beaten to death with baseball bats in the summer of 2001 following his coverage of ties between local law enforcement and organized crime, Podolsky`s murder is hardly remembered. During the Kuchma years, at least a dozen journalists were killed in Ukraine. As the Interior Ministry dismissed journalists` fears, and the Prosecutor-General`s Office made no relevant progress in its investigation, opposition leaders organized mass protests.

The Gongadze murder was particularly eventful because it was followed up by the release of secret recordings that implicated Kuchma and other top Ukrainian officials in the crime. The result was the movements "Ukraine without Kuchma" in 2001 and "Arise Ukraine" a year later, which brought thousands of people on to the streets of the capital, in what turned out to be dress rehearsals for the Orange Revolution.

In the mean time, Gongadze`s widow Myroslava was forced to seek asylum in the United States for fear of persecution, while his mother appealed unsuccessfully to have her son`s body finally given a decent burial. Analyses after so-called analyses were conducted only to be disputed in a never-ending atmosphere of denial and obfuscation.

Even after Yushchenko and the leaders of the Orange Revolution had replaced Kuchma and Co., the wheels of justice continued to drag on.

The Kyiv Court of Appeals heard the Gongadze case for over two years. The court proceedings began on 19 December 2005, and the panel of judges started conferring on a verdict on 11 March 2008. Hearings were repeatedly postponed due to illness alleged by one of the accused, Protasov.

And the proceedings may not be completely finished, at that.

Following the pronouncement of the sentences, the lawyer of Protasov called the court`s decision "unjust". Yuriy Hryhorenko, Kostenko`s lawyer, said after the verdict was announced that, "given all the circumstances, the sentence appears harsh. We will appeal against it."

As for Pugach, he is unlikely to be found soon, at least not alive.

Ukrainian Prosecutor-General Oleksandr Medvedko said in an interview in January this year that "Pugach is on a wanted list now as well as his girlfriend. A criminal case was initiated against her for concealing a crime. I cannot reveal her name. In addition to that, we found out about two people who assisted them in fleeing. We had information that for a certain time they were in Ukraine. We have compiled pictures of them and are looking for these two people."

Medvedko represents the latest in a line of prosecutor generals connected either to Yanukovych`s Donetsk clan and/or Kuchma, a chain that President Yushchenko has been reluctant to break.

In February 2008, the Ukrainian tabloid Segodnya quoted Gongadze`s mother`s attorney, Valentyna Telichenko, as saying that one of the accused, Popovych, had implicated two senior Interior Ministry officials in the murder: General Yuriy Dahayev, who died under mysterious circumstances, and Eduard Fere, who is reportedly in an irreversible coma.

But more importantly, the murderers behind the murderers are not even known, much less in custody.

Prime Minister Yuliya Tymoshenko has criticized the way the case has been prosecuted.

"As always, those who stood at the end of the chain in the Gongadze case were found, while those who ordered this crime and its immediate participants, including politicians and public persons, went absolutely unpunished. It is a shame that our justice is working so selectively. I am certain that the moment will come when the real culprits who gave the orders will answer for the murder of Gongadze and not these people whom they set up to lead the case to a dead end," she said after the announcement of the sentences.

Socialist leader Oleksandr Moroz, who took the lead in national protests against the administration of President Leonid Kuchma in the wake of the Gongadze murder, has implicated his former Orange Revolution colleagues in a cover-up. He said the fact that the contractors of the murder got away and cannot be found is highly suspicious. "It seems to me that a deal was cut between the former and current leadership of Ukraine regarding a cover-up of the Gongadze case. Someone wants to localize this case," he said over the weekend.

Gongadze`s widow, Miroslava, also believes justice has not been fully served: "Those who ordered the crime have yet to be punished. The people who organized and ordered the murder must be tried. Until anyone who had anything to do with the murder of Georgiy are punished, neither the president nor high-placed officials have the right to tell the public and the international community that the Gongadze case has been solved," she said in an interview to Radio Liberty.

By John Marone, a columnist of Eurasian Home website, Kyiv, Ukraine

March 17, 2008

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