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Ukraine in retrospective: Journalists’ safety vs Political Environment

Gongadze killer may go free

Editor’s Note: This story is part of a special project by the Kyiv Post, “Dying for Truth,” an online database and series of stories documenting violence against journalists in Ukraine’s 28 years of independence. Since 1991, when the country gained independence from the Soviet Union, more than 50 journalists have been killed across Ukraine. Most of the crimes have been poorly investigated and the killers remain unpunished. The project is supported by the Justice for Journalists Foundation. Content is independent of donor. Read the first story in the project.

Read the full story on the Kyiv Post website.

Oleksiy Pukach, the former general who once headed the surveillance department of Ukraine’s Interior Ministry, is supposed to be serving a life sentence for the killing of journalist Georgiy Gongadze in 2000.

But he could be going free soon.

Pukach spoke with the Kyiv Post from a small cage in a meeting room of the Lukianivske pre-trial detention center in Kyiv on July 12.

He admits involvement in Gongadze’s killing, but he has given conflicting explanations over the years, and has even taken to blaming the victim for his actions.

“I can admit that back then I did overstep my powers and that led to Gongadze’s death. I have served the full sentence already for this crime,” Pukach says today. “They had no right to give me life in prison.”

By “overstepping” his powers, he is referring to kidnapping the journalist, bringing him to a forest outside Kyiv, killing him, later beheading the body and then attempting to conceal the crime.

The murder of Gongadze, a prominent reporter and critic during President Leonid Kuchma’s autocratic reign from 1994 to 2005, shocked the country. To this day, the consequences of the only partially solved murder still reverberate in Ukraine, where journalists continue to be killed with impunity in their dogged pursuit of the truth.

An active investigation remains into who ordered the killing, but given that the trail leads to Kuchma and other high-level former officials, hopes are rock-bottom low that the case will ever be solved.

Sentenced in 2013, Pukach has been appealing his life sentence for more than six years. In 2016, the Appeals Court of Kyiv upheld his sentence. But in 2017, Pukach appealed to the Supreme Court.

The next hearing in his case is planned for September when the 19th anniversary of Gongadze’s murder is commemorated. If the court grants Pukach’s request to reduce his sentence, the ex-general might be released right on the spot.

All on tape

Gongadze disappeared on Sept. 16, 2000. Two months later, in November, his beheaded body was found in a forest near Kyiv.

That same month, Oleksandr Moroz, the Socialist Party leader and Kuchma’s rival in the 1999 presidential election, published audio recordings made by one of the president’s state guards, Major Mykola Melnychenko, in Kuchma’s office.

The tapes featured a voice resembling Kuchma’s ordering his subordinates, allegedly Interior Minister Yuriy Kravchenko, Security Service Chief Leonid Derkach, and Presidential Administration Head Volodymyr Lytvyn “to do something with Gongadze.” Although the tapes featured no direct order to murder Gongadze, Moroz said it proved the president and his inner circle were behind the killing.

Such a notorious crime against an independent journalist and the possible involvement of top officials in the murder provoked public outrage and civil unrest that winter. Protesters demanded Kuchma and the parliament resign and clashed with police on the streets of Kyiv. The protest ended with Kuchma firing Kravchenko and Derkach from their posts.

Kuchma has repeatedly denied any involvement in Gongadze’s murder.

19-year investigation

It took more than 10 years for the Ukrainian justice system to prove Gongadze’s killers — Pukach and three other Interior Ministry officers — guilty and sentence them. In 2010, investigators revealed that Kravchenko ordered Pukach to kill the journalist.

Kravchenko died from two gunshot wounds to the head on March 4, 2015, the day before he was supposed to give testimony to prosecutors. Officially, his death was ruled a suicide.

All three of Pukach’s co-conspirators — police officers Valeriy Kostenko, Oleksandr Popovych, and Mykola Protasov — said they didn’t know about Pukach’s plans to kill Gongadze.

Although investigators finally opened a criminal case against Kuchma in 2011, six years after he left office, they have never proved his involvement in the killing. The case against him was closed in 2011. In 2014, after fleeing Ukraine, former top deputy prosecutor Renat Kuzmin accused Kuchma of paying a $1 billion bribe to stop the investigation, accusations Kuchma also denied.

In 2015, Prosecutor General Viktor Shokin re-opened the Gongadze case and a case against whistleblower Melnychenko, accusing him of state treason, revealing state secrets, abuse of power and cooperation with foreign security services.

In January 2019, Shokin’s successor, Yuriy Lutsenko, said in an interview with journalist Dmytro Gordon that the investigators still cannot prove Kuchma’s involvement in the Gongadze case because they only have copies of Melnychenko’s recording. In Ukraine’s highly dysfunctional and Soviet legal system, only original wiretapping can be used as evidence, he claimed.

“Melnychenko still hasn’t passed the original tapes to the investigators,” Lutsenko said, an accusation denied by Mykola Nedilko, a lawyer for Melnychenko, who now lives in the United States. Nedilko said Melnychenko turned over the original wiretapping recordings to investigators long ago.

Meanwhile, the Prosecutor General’s Office of Ukraine is still investigating who might have been involved in ordering the murder of Gongadze, its press service told the Kyiv Post on July 19.

“The prosecutors have been investigating former top officials of Ukraine who were trying to get political and economic preferences for a circle of people close to the authorities. To achieve their goals, those people violated the law in different ways, including murdering Gongadze, abusing power, and illegally wiretapping the office of the president of Ukraine,” the press service said.

Georgiy Gongadze, the co-founder of Ukrainska Pravda news website, his wife Myroslava Gongadze and their children pose for a family portrait. On Sept. 16, 2000, the journalist was kidnapped and killed. Four police officers were convicted and sentenced to prison. (UNIAN)

Blamed Kuchma, Lytvyn

In 2013, Pukach admitted that he killed Gongadze. Then he said to the judge: “If you want to know my motive, ask Kuchma and Lytvyn!” Lytvyn at the time was Kuchma’s chief of staff and went on to be speaker of parliament. He’s always denied involvement in ordering Gongadze’s murder.

In January, Lutsenko said that he had spoken with Kuchma about his alleged involvement in Gongadze’s case many times and thinks that Kuchma didn’t give a direct order to eliminate Gongadze.

“But the talk about the punishment for Gongadze led to some kind of race (to see) who will go farther in fulfilling the will of the dictator,” Lutsenko said.

Kuchma still finds it hard to talk about this case, Lutsenko added.

During the July 12 interview, Pukach didn’t mention Kuchma, still an important and influential figure in Ukrainian politics. He currently represents Ukraine in the Minsk peace talks to end Russia’s war against Ukraine.

“Today I want to tell only about what I did!” Pukach said.

After two hours of conversation, it became clear that Pukach justifies his actions that led to his conviction for kidnapping and murder of Gongadze.

And he blames the victim.

He believes he was protecting the Ukrainian government from individuals who had been trying to undermine Ukraine’s national security and were frequently in contact with foreign intelligence services.

“The authorities don’t want you to know about that side of Gongadze, because in that case I should have been rewarded, not jailed for life,” he told the Kyiv Post.

The ex-general said that intelligence services in all countries sometimes have to work “beyond the law” to protect national interests.

In the months before the killing, Pukach and his subordinates were following Gongadze and Oleksiy Podolsky, a Ukrainian journalist and former foreign ministry official.

During the years 1999–2000, Podolsky published many compromising stories about Kuchma and spread them among Ukrainian opposition politicians. He claimed that the 1999 presidential election and the 2000 constitutional referendum, which increased the president’s powers, were rigged in favour of Kuchma.

In June 2000, four months before Gongadze’s murder, Pukach and his team of interior ministry officers kidnapped and severely beat Podolsky. But Podolsky survived the attack.

The officers’ main goal was to gain information about the pair’s cooperation with foreign intelligence services, Pukach claimed. Podolsky called those accusations baseless.

“Pukach is a typical Soviet law enforcement officer. For him, any contact with a foreigner is a crime,” Podolsky said.

He admitted that back in those days, he and Gongadze were meeting foreign diplomats and ambassadors. “We were not spies. We were journalists. It was normal for us to meet and talk to people. We were telling foreigners about what was really happening in Ukraine,” Podolsky said.

In 1999, Gongadze even travelled to Washington D. C. with a letter, signed by 60 journalists, to inform the U.S. about freedom of speech violations in Ukraine.

But in Pukach’s mind, both Podolsky and Gongadze were misinforming Ukraine’s Western partners and harming the country international image.

Podolsky said that he first met Gongadze in the office of their mutual friend, a month after being kidnapped and beaten. “I told him what happened to me. Soon after that, he wrote the famous letter to (Prosecutor General Mykhailo) Potebenko, complaining about the surveillance on him,” Podolsky recalls.

Pukach surveilled Gongadze from May until July 2000. Then he stopped for a while and only relaunched the surveillance once the journalist had lowered his guard.

From left, police officers Oleksandr Popovych, Mykola Protasov and Valeriy Kostenko hide their faces on March 15, 2008 at the Kyiv Court of Appeals. The court that day upheld their sentences of 12 and 13 years in prison for taking part in the murder of journalist Georgiy Gongadze in 2000. Protasov died in prison in 2015. Popovych and Kostenko were released from prison and transferred to camps for former prisoners. (UNIAN)

Grisly murder

During the pre-trial investigation in the early 2010s, Pukach admitted that he killed Gongadze and even showed where he buried the journalist’s head. Earlier in 2008, all three of Pukach’s subordinates said he killed Gongadze and described what happened with the journalist in details.

According to them, on the evening on Sept. 16, 2000, Pukach, Popovych, Protasov, and Kostenko kidnapped Gongadze. While other officers were holding him, Popovych beat Gongadze on the torso.

The journalist begged them not to kill him. Then, according to case materials, Pukach started to choke Gongadze with his bare hands. But Gongadze was strong and still managed to gasp for breath. So Popovych hit him hard in the chest again. After that, Pukach began choking Gongadze, using the journalist’s belt. That’s when he allegedly broke Gongadze’s Adam’s apple and killed him.

Today, Pukach denies details in a way that raises even more questions about his credibility.

“I needed to get information from Gongadze. So how could I choke him with a belt to kill him? You can’t break an Adam’s apple like that. A person has to be put face down, not face up, as he was,” Pukach said.

The ex-general said that, on Sept. 16, 2000, Gongadze visited a “safe house.” Prosecutors stated Gongadze visited relatives that day, but Pukach said the journalists had no relatives in Kyiv.

“I called Kravchenko and told him about that. Kravchenko said if I wanted to stick it to those foreign spies, I should go (find Gongadze) and document everything I see,” Pukach said.

The same day Pukach gathered his team and announced they needed to question Gongadze. “The court ruled I organized a murder. Have you ever heard of a criminal, who would announce he’s going to kill somebody?” he exclaimed.

In the forest, Pukach asked Gongadze why he visited the offices of foreign intelligence services. “He didn’t deny that. He went there to get money,” Pukach said, providing no evidence to support his claims.

“The Prosecutor General’s Office just doesn’t let me make it public that he planned a coup d’état. I told him that the Central Election Commission said the referendum and the election were fair. So if he wanted to change our government, he was going against the law!”

Pukach says he had significant evidence against Gongadze, but the Security Service of Ukraine and Prosecutor General’s Office destroyed it. Actually, in 2003, Pukach was a suspect in destroying the documents of Gongadze’s case.

The ex-general did not answer the Kyiv Post’s questions about why he buried Gongadze’s body far from the scene of the crime and who cut off the journalist’s head.

He says it was Popovych, an inexperienced interior ministry surveillance officer, who accidentally killed Gongadze when he hit him in the neck.
Pukach claims his subordinates agreed to cooperate with the murder investigation and lied about him in return for softer sentences. “They had been beating Protasov in his cell for three years to make him lie,” Pukach said.

Protasov was sentenced for 13 years in prison in 2008. He died in 2015. His lawyer, Viktor Chevguz, denied Pukach’s claims.

When asked why he admitted killing Gongadze in 2013, Pukach said: “If people threaten your family, you will take the blame on anything.”

‘Only a weapon’

In 2003, Pukach fled Kyiv. He says it was Kravchenko himself who told him to go into hiding.

“He told me some people were planning to kill me. So I left,” Pukach said. Investigators said Pukach had been hiding from justice for more than six years. However, Pukach says nobody was actively looking for him.

Indeed, in September 2018, former Deputy Prosecutor General Mykola Golomsha told the ZIK television channel that investigators had not been searching for Pukach back in 2007.

First, Pukach was living in his native Donetsk Oblast village, helping his relatives sell goods at the local market. He once visited Kharkiv, where road police stopped him and checked his documents, he says. But he wasn’t arrested.

Later, he worked as a stoker in a school in the small village Molochki in Zhytomyr Oblast, where everybody knew who he was. He used his real name.
“I never left Ukraine,” Pukach said.

Golomsha said that, despite rumors that Pukach was in Israel, one of Pukach’s relatives told him to look for the ex-general in Molochki.

On July 23, 2009, the Security Service of Ukraine located Pukach there and arrested him. The next day, he was taken to the agency’s pre-trial detention center. He could allegedly provide more evidence against Kuchma, Melnychenko said in a 2009 interview. Podolsky agrees.

For the past three years, he has also been trying to get more evidence. He wants to prove that Kuchma ordered Kravchenko to use Pukach and his squad to beat him up and kill Gongadze.

To that end, Poldolsky first filed an appeal and then a cassation claim against Pukach’s sentence. He doesn’t disagree with the sentence itself, but claims the court process was falsified and demands that Ukraine conduct a new investigation into Pukach’s crimes.

“Pukach is only a weapon of the system. He got an order and he fulfilled it,” Podolsky said. “Back in those days, they had dozens of targets like me and Gongadze. Nothing new, just an old Soviet method of using law enforcement in political conflicts.”

To find more detailed information about the events that led to the murder of Georgiy Gongadze, as well a chronology of the 19 years of investigation, check the timeline.