Region: Gongadze murder case is still unsolved
Former police chief's trial points to gangster-like political misrule
Posted: January 30, 2013
By Oksana Grytchenko
From the Kyiv Post
The trial of Oleksiy Pukach, the former police general who remains the highest-ranking official charged in the 2000 kidnapping and murder of journalist Georgiy Gongadze, came to an end Jan. 29 with a guilty verdict after a trial that has been conducted in secret.
Pukach, who has been sentenced to life in prison, partially confessed to the murder during the trial.
The big question, however, is whether the judge will decide to end Pukach's case or whether other former high-ranking officials implicated in the murder, including former President Leonid Kuchma and his former chief of staff, Volodymyr Lytvyn, will continue to be investigated for alleged involvement in ordering the crime.
Valentyna Telychenko, the lawyer for Gongazde's widow, Myroslava, fears it's quite probable the authorities will go no further than Pukach, but she considers such a decision to be a grave injustice. "The state is doing everything to stop at Pukach and not pursue those who ordered the murder," Telychenko said.
Gongadze, an opposition journalist and the founder of the Ukrainska Pravda news website, disappeared Sept. 16, 2000. Months later, his decapitated body was found in a forest outside of Kyiv. In late November 2000, the tapes of Kuchma's former bodyguard, Major Mykola Melnychenko, were exposed in Ukrainian Parliament by former Speaker Oleksandr Moroz.
The hundreds of hours of recordings purportedly implicate Kuchma and other top officials in the Gongadze case and numerous other crimes, exposing a gangster-like misrule of the nation. The authenticity of the tapes, however, has always been disputed, and Kuchma and others have doggedly denied wrongdoing.
However, most independent assessments accuse Kuchma of stonewalling investigations into Gongadze and the tapes. Viktor Yushchenko, who succeeded Kuchma as president in 2005, vowed to bring those responsible for Gongadze's murder to trial. That same year, former Interior Minister Yuriy Kravchenko died of two gunshot wounds to the head. Authorities called it a suicide, but he died the same day he was to give testimony in the Gongadze case.
He was the immediate supervisor of Pukach who, along with three other police officers, were implicated in actually carrying out the murder. The other three former police officers were convicted of assisting Pukach in the abduction and murder of Gongadze. They were sentenced to 12 and 13 years, respectively, of imprisonment in 2008.
It wasn't until 2009, however, that Pukach was arrested in a village in the Zhytomyr region where he had been hiding for several years. Authorities say he confessed to strangling and beheading Gongadze on orders from Kravchenko.
While Telychenko agrees Pukach deserves the life sentence, it is not what she wanted to hear Jan. 29. She said the court should return the Pukach case to its pre-trial investigation and incriminate him in a contract murder, which would allow authorities to pursue charges against others involved in the crime.
"Pukach personally had no complaints against Gongadze," she said. "He says he was carrying out the instructions of Kravchenko, Kuchma and Lytvyn [then head of the presidential administration] and other top officials, which means he was acting on someone's order and not on his own initiative."
Telychenko added she was surprised neither Kuchma nor Lytvyn was subpoenaed as witnesses in the trial, even though Pukach identified them as being involved. She said Pukach told the court the following: "I don't recognize the previous arrangement between my subordinates and me. Instead, I declare there was an arrangement between Kuchma, Kravchenko, Lytvyn and myself."
Yanukovych promised in 2011 to "do everything" to complete the investigation of the Gongadze case and punish all who were guilty of the crime. In March 2011, the prosecutor general opened a criminal probe into Kuchma over Gongadze's murder, but in December of that year the court ruled it saw no evidence that Kuchma had been involved.
The court also decided Melnychenko's tapes couldn't be used as evidence in the case as had been obtained illegally. Telychenko called this court decision itself illegal.
Hryhory Omelchenko, a former lawmaker who headed a parliamentary commission investigating the Gongadze case, agreed, saying his commission had evidence about the involvement of top officials in the murder as far back as 2004.
"The commission came to the conclusion that Kuchma and Lytvyn were accomplices in the crime," Omelchenko said. "Lytvyn was the instigator, and Kuchma gave this order to General Kravchenko."
Omelchenko said the government has never had the will to fully investigate the Gongadze case, saying the prosecution's decision to open the case against Kuchma was most likely sparked by sharp criticism from Brussels, as European Union officials have for years demanded all accomplices to the crime be brought to justice.
Pukach's lawyer, Hryhory Demydenko, said in an interview with the Segodnya daily newspaper that his client killed the journalist "by accident" and did it after a "misunderstanding" of Kravchenko's order.
"Nobody proved any evidence of intent. There are no motives. This was no contract killing," Demydenko said. However, he maintained there was a high probability that the court would send the Pukach case back for additional investigation instead of handing down a sentence.
Prior to the verdict, Telychenko said if the court sentenced Pukach without incriminating him in a contract murder, she would bring the case to the European Court of Human Rights, basing her complaint on the unwillingness of the state to find those responsible. She said the criminal probe against the former president must be reopened.
"The cancellation by the court of a criminal case against Kuchma was a violation of Myroslava Gongadze's right to a fair trial, envisaged by Article 6 of the European Convention on Human Rights," she said.
Oksana Grytsenko can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org