Inquiry into the murder of journalist Georgiy Gongadze






Reporters Sans Frontičres (RSF) sent a mission of inquiry to Kiev, from 5 to 12 January 2001, to investigate the kidnapping and murder of journalist Georgiy Gongadze. The testimonies of dozens of people (family, friends, experts, doctors, judges and jurists, civil servants and journalists) were taken. The RSF delegation also met the Ukrainian president, Leonid Kuchma, the head of the state council for security and defense, Evguen Marchuk, the minister of the interior, Yuri Kravchenko, the head of the secret services (SBU, ex-KGB), Leonid Derkach, the president's spokesperson, Alexander Martynenko, the head of the tax department, Mykola Azarov, the president of the parliamentary commission of inquiry into the disappearance of Georgiy Gongadze, Alexander Lavrinovitch, and the members of parliament of the different parties represented on this commission of inquiry. The RSF delegation was unable to meet the judge in charge of the inquiry since the Ukrainian state prosecutor prohibited such a meeting.

On 16 September 2000 journalist Georgiy Gongadze disappeared. This event became an affair of state after the broadcasting on 28 November 2000 of recordings, claimed to have been made in the president's office, which tend to prove that the highest authorities are implicated in the disappearance of the journalist. Against a background of power struggle between the executive and parliament, the Gongadze affair has become the centre of an intense political struggle around the authenticity of these audio tapes and the conditions in which they were recorded.

The RSF mission concentrated on the facts themselves: the conditions of the journalist's disappearance, attempts to intimidate him in the weeks preceding his disappearance, and steps taken in the official inquiry, both before and after the discovery of the body on 2 November. It tried to verify and cross-check the different testimonies and explanations given.

The RSF mission noted that there had been an accumulation of mistakes, of exceptional gravity, made throughout the judicial inquiry. It appears that the investigation was carried out primarily with the intention of protecting the executive from the serious accusations made against it, rather than for the purpose of uncovering the truth. Preliminary conclusions of the inquiry presented to parliament by the state prosecutor on 11 January 2001, during the RSF mission, added to proof of a political approach to this case, incompatible with the minimum requirements of impartiality in this type of inquiry. The state prosecutor indicated that since the audio tapes which implicate the authorities of the country had, according to Ukrainian experts, been faked, all suspicion ought to be cast aside. He added that since the ministers concerned had denied any responsibility of their services, the journalist's accusations of being shadowed were groundless. The state prosecutor also announced that, according to the results of several DNA tests, there was a "99.64% chance" that the decapitated body found on 2 November at Tarachtcha, 60 km from Kiev, was that of Georgiy Gongadze. He nevertheless explained that new testimonies of people who claimed to have seen and recognized Georgiy Gongadze in Lviv, in western Ukraine, after his disappearance, left some hope of finding him alive.

RSF considers that Georgiy Gongadze was murdered because he was a journalist. Everything seems to have been done to prevent that truth from being revealed. After four months of obstruction, the legal inquiry needs to be started again from scratch and conducted through to the end. Attempts to intimidate the journalist in the weeks preceding his disappearance require an in-depth investigation. A new autopsy should reveal important information on the conditions of his death. In light of the accumulation of mistakes, delays and inconsistencies by the legal and administrative authorities, it is essential that the responsibility of everyone concerned be established. All means and expertise necessary must now be implemented to ensure that those responsible for the murder of Georgiy Gongadze are identified and punished.

The target: journalist Georgiy Gongadze

Irrespective of who it was that ordered the kidnapping of Georgiy Gongadze and of what their motives were, one thing is certain: they were aiming for Georgiy Gongadze, the journalist. No element exists to suggest any other motive (e.g. settling of scores, sex crime). He had no heavy debts nor any job other than journalism. The fact that his body was found 60 km from Kiev also excludes the possibility of a murder by a prowler.

Georgiy Gongadze (31 years old, father of three-year-old twins), editor-in-chief of the on-line newspaper, was a young political journalist who was highly critical of the government, even though several ministers told the RSF delegation that "in Ukraine there were journalists who were more critical and better known than him". Julia Mostavaia, deputy editor-in-chief of the weekly Zerkalo Nedeli knew him for over ten years: "He had a lampoonist style. It was obvious that he was strongly opposed to the government. He did not always cross-check his information, but he had a brilliant personality."

During the October 1999 presidential election campaign, in particular, the journalist was on the attack. While he and four other journalists were questioning the state president during a debate broadcast by the national channel 1 + 1, he virulently criticized the interior minister. The journalist then went to the United States, from 3 December 1999 to 5 January 2000, a few days before President Kuchma's official visit. There he met representatives of the state department, congress, the media and the large Ukrainian community. He published a text signed by 60 journalists, denouncing the lack of press freedom in Ukraine, and organized a press conference on the subject. A friend of Georgiy Gongadze recalls that a member of the Ukrainian delegation who arrived in the US for the official visit, and who knew the journalist, said to him: "You don't realize that you could be killed for what you're doing here".

Georgiy Gongadze was actively involved in denunciation of the referendum on the strengthening of presidential powers, in April 2000. Serhiy Holovaty, an MP, recalls that on Radio Continent, where he worked at the time, "he was one of the rare journalists to allow time on the air to people opposed to the referendum". On 3 May 2000 Georgiy Gongadze was one of the main organizers of a demonstration by journalists in Kiev to protest against restrictions on press freedom. In April 2000 he founded his on-line newspaper Until his disappearance he published articles by other journalists implicating important personalities in the country's political and economic spheres in affairs of corruption.

Georgiy Gongadze was shadowed before he went missing

For several months before his disappearance Georgiy Gongadze repeatedly denounced the fact that he was being threatened. He even appealed directly to the judiciary. Today the state prosecutor, who never took his appeals seriously, refuses to carry out an in-depth inquiry into those threats.

In July 2000 Georgiy Gongadze wrote an open letter to the state prosecutor of Ukraine, Mykhailo Potebenko, in which he stated that unknown persons were following him in a "Zhiguli" car with an official registration number 07309 KB. Although the journalist was being shadowed in Kiev where he lived and worked, the state prosecutor forwarded his letter to the regional prosecutor's office in the western town of Lviv where Georgiy Gongadze's mother lives and where he was registered. The Lviv prosecutor's office replied that the names of the places and streets (of Kiev) where the journalist had seen the car following him were "unknown in Lviv". By thus transmitting the journalist's letter to a regional office, the state prosecutor showed how little importance he granted to the threats of which Georgiy Gongadze felt he was a victim.

The interior minister, Yuri Kravchenko, confirmed that the car registration number given by the journalist did belong to the trailing services of the militia (the generic term used to refer to the interior ministry's police). But he claimed that "those number plates were stolen from one of our vehicles in February 2000". It seems that the persons investigating Gongadze's disappearance did not try to verify that fact, nor to find out who had been in that car. The legal and political authorities questioned on this point categorically refused the hypotheses that government officials were implicated in the shadowing of the journalist. Questioned by the RSF mission at a press conference, the state prosecutor Mykhailo Potebenko cast aside this idea: "During the period to which Georgiy Gongadze referred, that registration number no longer existed". A few days later, in an article published on 15 January 2001 in the newspaper Grani, the editor-in-chief of the newspaper, Yuri Lutsenko, revealed the identity of four police officers from the interior ministry's criminal investigation department who, he affirmed, where ordered to follow the journalist Georgiy Gongadze.

Furthermore, in the summer of 2000 a strange investigation concerning Georgiy Gongadze was carried out by "official services". Aliona Pritoula, one of Georgiy Gongadze's colleagues, told RSF: "In July Georgiy's mother and friends in Lviv were questioned by police inspectors who claimed to be investigating the murder of a Chechen in Odessa. The director of Radio Continent, where Georgiy had worked, also received a visit from a colonel of the militia, on the same subject." The men asked many questions on the personality of the journalist (who had no ties whatsoever with the Chechens). The journalist's mother remembers being questioned at her home by the Lviv regional prosecutor. While his friends and family were thus questioned, supposedly as part of this criminal investigation, Georgiy Gongadze was never summoned for questioning. This leaves doubts as to the real motives for the questionings. The official inquiry into the journalist's death does not seem to have paid the slightest attention to this matter. The state prosecutor, who in July was also informed by the journalist of these facts, still chooses to ignore them even today.

Other incidents confirm that the journalist was the object of special attention in the months preceding his disappearance. Myroslava Gongadze, his wife, recalls: "One day, someone sitting on a bench downstairs was clearly watching our windows. Another day, on 12 July at around 4 p.m., Georgiy called me to tell me that three cars of the militia were parked in front of his office building. Georgiy called a friend, a member of parliament, who came to fetch him, and he left with him". Friends and colleagues of the journalist were also watched at that time. On 15 September journalist Oleg Yeltsov, who had published one of his articles in Georgiy Gongadze's on-line newspaper, was also threatened. "At 8 p.m. an anonymous caller phoned and said: 'Stop writing on the Internet site and working on the secret services. You're bothering important people.' I informed the militia. The next morning I had another call: 'You called the militia yesterday?' I recognized police cars downstairs" he recounted. The next day, which was also the day Georgiy Gongadze disappeared, Oleg Yeltsov was harassed by the police: "At 4 p.m. I took a train for Russia to visit my father. When the train stopped at Kaniv station three plain-clothes police officers got into the coach where I had a seat reserved and said 'We're looking for Yeltsov'. They searched my case and then let me go. I was searched again at the Russian border by police who admitted that they'd been warned of my arrival". Today, the official inquiry has shown no interest in these facts.

Georgiy Gongadze disappeared in the evening of 16 September. The last person who saw him was Aliona Pritoula, whose home in the centre of Kiev he left at 10.30 p.m. The last person who spoke to him was his old friend Konstantin Alania whom he phoned at the same time. Georgiy Gongadze was then supposed to go home to his wife and two daughters, a 20 minute walk away. He never arrived. In July 2000 he had told his mother: "There's something happening around me; I'm not sure what".

The inquiry into the disappearance has led nowhere

The inquiry into the journalist's disappearance has been an accumulation of delays and mistakes. The journalist's family, like certain witnesses, have intentionally been ignored. His colleagues and friends are treated as obstacles rather than assistants in the inquiry. Shortcomings have become more and more obvious as the journalist's disappearance has become a political affair.

The day after Georgiy Gongadze disappeared, the militia searched for him near the place where he had been seen for the last time. Shopkeepers and neighbors were questioned. Myroslava Gongadze, the journalist's wife, said: "The judge in charge of the investigation, Grygoryi Garbuz, started by carrying out a serious inquiry. I trusted him". But this judge was replaced in early November, after the discovery of the body, by another judge, Vassylenko.

The head of the state security council, Evguen Marchuk, considers that in the weeks following Georgiy Gongadze's disappearance, "all the services did perhaps not realize just how important this case was". Yet, a few days after the journalist went missing, President Kuchma promised that everything would be done to find him. Later, after a motion approved by seven parties represented in parliament, the state president undertook to have three different administrative departments inquire into the disappearance: the state prosecutor's office, the interior ministry and the secret services (SBU). The journalist's family then hoped that with such cooperation between the three services, progress would be made.

On 18 September 2000 an anonymous call to the Georgian embassy in Kiev stated that the persons responsible for the disappearance of Georgiy Gongadze were a certain "Kissiel" (known in Kiev as an important leader in the local mafia), the interior minister, Yuri Kravchenko, and a member of parliament close to the president, Alexander Volkof. The said Kissiel does not seem to have been wanted in connection with this affair. He allegedly left the country. The Georgian ambassador, who publicly reported this telephone call, was definitively recalled to Tbilissi, the Georgian capital, a few weeks later. The Ukrainian authorities refuse to recognise any relationship between the telephone call on 18 September and the ambassador being recalled.

A few days after the journalist disappeared, one of his friends, Evgueni Lauer, was detained by the militia for ten days for "disturbing public order". He was questioned daily on Gongadze’s disappearance. This 40-year-old former member of the KGB special forces was eventually released without any charges filed against him.

The deputy interior minister told the RSF delegation that 2,500 people had been questioned during the inquiry into the disappearance of Georgiy Gongadze. He claimed that no determining element was found. There were about ten different leads but none had been given priority.

Everything seems to have been done to ensure that the body could not be identified

The discovery by a farmer, on 2 November 2000, of a body buried in a shallow grave near Tarachtcha, a small town in the Kiev region, was followed by an incredible series of very serious shortcomings in the inquiry. The body had been decapitated and the fingers and toes were in a very bad state. The remains were in an advanced state of decay due to the fact that decomposition is faster close to the surface of the ground. The body had been injured by what seems to have been an axe. It was examined by a local expert, Igor Vorotinsev, who carried out an initial autopsy. The approximate date of the death could correspond to the disappearance of Georgiy Gongadze. A member of the parliamentary commission of inquiry indicated that Igor Vorotinsev submitted a first autopsy report on 8 November, in which he confirmed this fact. A copy was given to the Tarachtcha militia. Although he alerted the authorities to the discovery and state of the body, the remains were kept in the small Tarachtcha mortuary for thirteen days, without adequate facilities to preserve it. As a result, subsequent analyses and identification of the body were far more difficult.

While the whole country was looking for Georgiy Gongadze, the journalist's family was not informed of the discovery of this unidentified body. On 10 November friends of Georgiy Gongadze learned of the discovery in a brief news item in the newspaper Sevodnia. They went to the mortuary on 15 November to try to identify the victim. They identified the journalist's jewellery and, with the help of the expert Vorotinsev, noted the presence of grenade wounds in the right forearm (from injuries sustained by the journalist in Georgia in 1992) and established that the food present in the victim's stomach could correspond to his last meal. They also took a sample of skin from the corpse for the purpose of independent analyses. From that date the state prosecutor's department showed, by its attitude, that it intended to strictly control the progress of the inquiry. It was to multiply its obstruction of any parallel investigation. As soon as Georgiy Gongadze's friends had left, the body was transported secretly to Kiev, on 15 November in the afternoon, without the local head of the Tarachtcha mortuary being informed. It was only three days later that the Kiev regional prosecutor's office confirmed that it had ordered the transfer of the body to a mortuary in the capital. The member of parliament Serguei Galavati noted that "without the right procedures and control this transfer could have been an opportunity for any kind of manipulation and even an exchange of bodies so that the results of the analyses could be controlled".

The next day, on 16 November, the deputy interior minister, Mykola Djiga, stated that the body found at Tarachtcha had probably been buried for close to two years. Questioned by the RSF mission on this statement which contradicted the conclusions of the preliminary report by the expert in Tarachtcha, he simply explained: "I am not an expert. I trusted a Kiev expert and took the risk of quoting him". The first preliminary examination carried out in Tarachtcha by the expert Vorotinsev was, moreover, cancelled. "We have proved that the law was violated in the first expert's examination", the deputy minister claimed as justification. From then on the local expert was forbidden from making any statement on the corpse discovered on 2 November and on his initial conclusions. His house was searched and his computer and all documents relating to this affair were confiscated. The RSF delegation was unable to meet him. He was accused of being too cooperative with the victim's friends who had gone to the mortuary on 15 November to identify the body. He is currently being sued for violating the law and his family says that he is under intense pressure.

At the same time the journalist's wife and mother were kept out of the inquiry on the body found in Tarachtcha for as long as possible. Georgiy Gongadze's wife was not informed of the discovery of the body. "On 6 or 7 November the judge in charge of the inquiry called me to ask whether my husband had been wearing jewellery. I guessed they'd found something but he didn't want to tell me anything. On 15 November Georgiy's friends called me to tell me that a body had been found in Tarachtcha. I had to struggle for weeks before I was allowed to go and identify the body".

It was only on 10 December, more than a month after the body had been discovered, that Miroslava Gongadze was finally authorised to see the body, to try to identify it. "They did everything to dissuade me from seeing the body. They made me write and rewrite papers with several copies confirming that I wanted to see it. Then they showed me only small parts of the body. I nevertheless recognised the build, the shoulders of my husband. I also recognised a foot, the shape of his heel", she recalls. Shocked, she was nevertheless unable to certify formally that it was Georgiy. The same day she recognised the locket and chain bracelet of her husband among other jewellery shown to her. The state prosecutor stated that the soil found on the jewellery was not the same as that in the place where the body was found, thus insinuating that this jewellery could have been buried later to make it look as if the body was Georgiy Gongadze's. According to a member of the commission of inquiry, it was impossible to verify these statements since the jewellery had been cleaned.

The officials responsible for the inquiry also showed their unwillingness as regards the DNA analyses, the only means of determining with certainty whether the body found was that of Georgiy Gongadze. On 8 December the state prosecutor announced that it was impossible to take a blood sample from the journalist's mother to compare it with that of the body found in Tarachtcha since she was ill. Mrs Gongadze immediately denied that information. The prosecutor spoke a few days later of a "misunderstanding". A blood sample was taken from Georgiy's mother on 11 December only, one and a half months after the discovery of the body.

On the same day police questioned the journalist's mother for four hours. She affirmed that the militia tried to make her sign a statement certifying that her son had large debts. She refused to sign the document. Questioned by the RSF delegation, she denied having mentioned any debts that her son may have had.

A parliamentary inquiry into the disappearance of Georgiy Gongadze, whom several MPs knew personally, was set up in late September. On the basis of President Kuchma's veto, in 1998, of a law on the creation of parliamentary commissions of inquiry, the state prosecutor refused to cooperate. On 19 September he informed the commission that its requests to hear the experts and legal authorities in the Gongadze affair were unconstitutional. One of the most active members of the commission of inquiry, Valery Ivanssiouk, was questioned by the SBU for four hours, on 10 January 2001. He was told that he may be prosecuted for a past affair.

The MP Serguei Galavati, also a member of the parliamentary commission, told RSF: "We commissioned an independent counter-expertise in Germany on the basis of three elements: a piece of skin taken by the journalist's friends on 15 November, a military medical card with Gongadze's blood on it, and a sample of the journalist's mother's blood. The announcement of these independent tests, the results of which are to be announced shortly, has put real pressure on the official inquiry and speeded up the realisation of further tests".

In the official inquiry a sample was taken from the corpse at Tarachtcha on 28 November only. Analyses were to take 21 days, but the results were announced as late as 11 January. Sixteen different DNA tests were reportedly carried out in Ukraine and elsewhere (Russia, apparently). The results indicate that there is a 99.64% chance that the body is Georgiy Gongadze's. The day this announcement was made, the state prosecutor informed parliament of three new testimonies, "still to be verified", of people who said they had seen and recognised Georgiy Gongadze in the western town of Lviv after his disappearance. Georgiy's mother has been refused permission to speak to these people, although one of the witnesses has been interviewed on local television. She considers that these new testimonies are "grotesque" and are aimed at maintaining doubt, despite all the evidence, as to the identity of the body.

Men "capable of anything"

The Gongadze case swelled into an affair of state with the revelation, on 28 November 2000 by one of the opposition leaders, of recordings supposedly made by an officer of the secret police in the office of President Leonid Kuchma during conversations between the president and several senior officials. In these conversations various means of eliminating Georgiy Gongadze are discussed. In one of them an interlocutor presented as possibly being the interior minister, Yuri Kravchenko, affirms that he has people capable of doing the job. He describes them as "real hawks" prepared to "do anything you want". In his declaration to the Ukrainian parliament on 10 January the state prosecutor, Mykhailo Potebenko, gave the result of expert analyses of these recordings, performed in Ukraine. The conclusion is that the recordings could not have been made in the conditions described by the secret police officer who divulged the tapes, that distinct pieces of recordings were pasted together, and that the bad quality of the tape which had been analyzed (a copy of the original) did not make it possible to identify the voices.

These conclusions do not exclude the need to investigate the facts themselves mentioned in the recordings, especially the existence of these "hawks". Many witnesses interviewed by the RSF delegation confirmed the existence, in Ukraine, of units composed either of members of special forces within official services, or of former police officers who work for mafia chiefs, and who are prepared to carry out violent acts against politicians or journalists if commissioned to do so.

Questioned on the existence of such groups, the socialist MP Alexander Moroz, who was behind the disclosure of the tapes on the Gongadze affair, affirms: "It's people who get paid well, not necessarily officially, and who are used to do dirty work. They can do anything, they've got no scruples". The opposition MP Serhiy Holovaty publicly reported having been rebuked in the corridors of parliament by the interior minister who allegedly said: "Listen, Serge, we're going to beat you up like the cops do". The persons who substantiate reports on the existence of these agencies cannot affirm that they are under the control of the interior ministry. A journalist specialized in criminal issues believes that they are brigades composed of policemen or former policemen "close to the criminal world".

Pressure on the press investigating the Gongadze affair

Since the disappearance of the journalist several media have affirmed that they have been under pressure to change their coverage of the case. The RSF delegation met about ten editors-in-chief of newspapers who claim that "officers of the local SBU offices and of the militia" are behind this pressure on publications, printing works and distributors.

After publication of the 26 November 2000 edition of Grani, in which the lead stories were devoted to revelations on the recordings, the newspaper's printers, which depend on the ministry of science, cancelled their contract. The editor-in-chief of Grani, Yuri Lutsenko, has been the victim of attempted intimidation. In December he received a document by fax, resembling a report by the security police in which his daily habits and itineraries were described. After announcing on 12 January 2001 that he has information on the identity of the civil servants who shadowed Georgiy Gongadze, he has also been followed in Kiev. He has denounced these facts and on 15 January 2001 he published this information in Grani.

On 27 November officials who introduced themselves as SBU agents from the town of Tchernenko, tried to prevent the printing of the next day's edition of the newspaper Roubige, which ran a lead story on the Gongadze affair, but the printer refused to give in. On 28 November one of the vehicles distributing the newspaper was stopped by three militia who confiscated the entire load.

On 29 November a newspaper of the socialist party, Trudova Poltavshchina, in the eastern town of Poltava, was the victim of a bomb scare. The newspaper was about to publish an appeal by the MP Moroz concerning the Gongadze affair. The editor S. Bulba recalls: "We divided up all our copies between the different journalists and employees who stored the newspapers in their homes until distribution the next day".

On the same day the printer "Presa Ukrainy" refused to print the edition of another socialist party newspaper Tovarichtch featuring an article on possible involvement of the government in the disappearance of Georgiy Gongadze. The 6 December edition of the newspaper Litsa, in the southern town of Dniepropetrovsk, which published a transcription of the recordings, was refused by the printers Knizhnaya Tipographia, following intervention by an agent from the regional SBU. The newspaper was printed in another region.

The 7 December 2000 edition of the newspaper Slovo Vetezana in the town of Povlograd was censured. A full page, devoted to the Gongadze affair and headed "The scandal of the year" was removed as the newspaper was going to press. The editor-in-chief, Ludmila Pregseva, said she was called at 7.30 p.m. by the manager of the printing works who asked to see her. "She explained to me that she could not print the edition with that article, following the intervention of an officer from the Pavlograd SBU office. I refused to put another article in its place and the edition was printed with a blank page instead of the censured article".

On 12 January the president of Radio Free Europe-Radio Liberty, Thomas A. Dine, denounced "people claiming to be Ukrainian intelligence officers who approached members of our Ukrainian Service and threatened reprisals against them if the service does not modify its coverage of Ukrainian political developments" around the scandal surrounding the death of Georgiy Gongadze.

Conclusions and recommendations

RSF denounces the serious shortcomings in the way in which the Ukrainian judicial authorities have conducted the inquiry into the murder of Georgiy Gongadze. The organization considers, in particular, that the state prosecutor of Ukraine has conducted his investigations with the sole aim of clearing the name of the political authorities from any responsibility in this affair. RSF condemns the offhandedness, not to mention the contempt, with which the judicial authorities have treated the family and friends of Georgiy Gongadze. RSF is concerned about the threats and intimidation of which several newspapers have been victims while investigating or reporting on the Georgiy Gongadze affair.

RSF recommends that the Ukrainian authorities:

- start a new inquiry and appoint a new state prosecutor;

- perform a new autopsy on the decapitated body of Georgiy Gongadze, and do everything possible to find and identify the head and determine the date and cause of the journalist's death;

- take all necessary steps to identify those responsible for the murder;

- conduct an in-depth investigation on the possible involvement of official services in the disappearance of the journalist, and in the threats against him in July 2000;

- promulgate the law on parliamentary commissions of inquiry as quickly as possible;

- take all necessary steps to put an end to violence against journalists in Ukraine, so that they can work freely and safely.

Should the authorities fail to make an effort to get to the bottom of this case in the next few months, RSF would recommend that the Council of Europe suspend Ukraine's status as a member.

  The courtesy of Reporters Sans Frontičres

Copyright © 2002 Forum of Ukrainian Students in America
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