NUJ Gongadze case update 3

Break stalemate on Gongadze case

EUROPEAN parliamentarians were warned last month that efforts to mount an independent inquiry into the death of Ukrainian journalist Gyorgy Gongadze have reached "stalemate".

In September last year, the parliamentary assembly of the Council of Europe called for an independent international inquiry into the case, and in December, a delegation from the assembly was told by Ukrainian justice minister Susanna Stanik that Ukraine is ready to co-operate with such a procedure.

But now opponents of an inquiry into the case - regarded as a touchstone for press freedom in Europe - are arguing that Ukraine has no legal framework under which it could be held.

Ukraine's deputy general prosecutor, Aleksei Baganets, even claimed on 25 January that the Council of Europe had for that reason agreed not to proceed with setting up an inquiry. That statement was immediately denounced by press freedom campaigners as untrue.

But certainly there is delay at Strasbourg: the chairman of the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe, Lithuanian foreign minister Antanas Valionis, told the parliamentary assembly on 22 January that the lack of a legal framework in Ukraine was the reason that no inquiry had been set up this far. He added that he had been given assurances from Kyiv that authorities there are "ready to co-operate with the international community within the legal framework of Ukrainian law" and that Ukrainian parliamentarians had asked for help in establishing such an enquiry.

Valionis was answering a question by Hanne Severinsen, a Liberal parliamentarian from Denmark and a rapporteur to the parliament on Ukraine, about why the inquiry agreed upon in September had not gone ahead. Severinsen responded that she wanted to hear "how we can break out of this continuing stalemate". Eighteen months had passed, she reminded the assembly.

The Ukrainian government says it is waiting on Strasbourg. The Committee of Ministers says it is waiting for individual countries to respond to its request for offers of assistance in the form of volunteering investigators. The Commission of the Ukrainian parliament is waiting for international assistance. "We must adhere to our decision that an international commission should be set up," Severinsen concluded.

In Ukraine, three parliamentary deputies are now drafting a law under which an inquiry can be put on a firm legal footing. Now other European countries must do their part, by volunteering to participate in the investigation.

The NUJ urges journalists and parliamentarians in all European countries to seek assurances from their governments that such help will be offered.

We also call for the inquiry to be structured so that journalists' organisations and civil society are able to participate.

The Gongadze case is a vital one not only for Ukraine but for the whole of Europe. Gongadze, a journalist on the internet newspaper Ukrainskaia Pravda, disappeared in September 2000, after having spent several weeks telling friends and colleagues that he was being followed.

Soon afterwards, a headless corpse believed to be Gongadze's was found at Tarashcha near Kyiv. It was subsequently identified as his to 99.5% and higher levels of certainty by a number of pathologists' reports.

Meanwhile a heavy burden of suspicion fell on Ukrainian president Leonid Kuchma. In November 2000 one of his bodyguards, Mykola Melnychenko, fled Ukraine and released tapes of the president and senior ministers discussing the need to do away with Gongadze. The tapes were circulated worldwide and ignited a political crisis in Ukraine. Protesters camped outside parliament demanding "Ukraine without Kuchma". The president denied involvement in Gongadze's murder but did not deny that the tapes were authentic.

Despite, or perhaps because of, this powerful prima facie evidence of a high-level conspiracy against Gongadze, inquiries into the murder in Ukraine have run into the sand. In May last year minister of internal affairs Yuri Smirnov announced that the case had been solved, and that Gongadze had been murdered by "hooligans" who had themselves subsequently been killed. Shortly afterwards this version was discounted.

The demand for an independent international inquiry was first made by Gongadze's colleagues and family, supported by many press freedom and human rights campaign groups. Gyorgy's mother, Lese Gongadze, has spoken on the case internationally. On 25 January a judge at the Pechersky district court in Kyiv turned down Lese Gongadze's petition challenging the general prosecutor's refusal to initiate proceedings over her son's death against president Kuchma, presidential administration chief Vladimir Litvin and internal affairs minister Yuri Kravchenko.

After the hearing Lese Gongadze said that she would take the case to the European court and that she would not allow the matter to rest.

 
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