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Our cases have been researched using open source and archive materials. It deals with true crimes and real people. Some parts are graphic in nature and listener discretion is advised. Each episode is produced with the utmost respect to the victims, their families and loved ones.
It was Saturday night on the 16th of September 2000. Georgiy Gongadze had a lot on his mind. He was a journalist, one of the most ambitious ones in Kiyv. He had recently started an online newspaper, with a direct and honest approach, criticising the Ukrainian government in explosive articles, written in Ukrainian, Russian and English.
He had recently received documents that proved corruption in the president’s innermost circle of ministers. If exposed, the already-restless public would finally have the proof they needed: Kuchma was no god-fearing poster boy for democracy. He was a crooked politician who had been lying to his people about rebuilding an independent Ukraine, after years of Soviet rule.
Georgiy knew the information in his possession was a ticking time bomb. The only question was: how should he expose the president and his entourage? What would be the best way? He wasn’t sure if his online newspaper was the right place to publish an exposé of this magnitude. He wanted to solicit change, to ask the people of Ukraine to protest against the president and force him to step down.
He spent the evening with the co-founder of his newspaper, Olena Prytula. Besides working together, they were also romantically involved, even though Georgiy was a married man. It was after 10pm when he left Olena’s apartment in central Kiew to go home to his wife Miroslava and their three-year-old twin girls. He said goodbye to Olena for what would be, the very last time. Georgiy never made it home…
On the 24th of August 1991, Ukraine became independent breaking away from the former Soviet Union. Ukrainian people were quietly optimistic about the future, and many wanted to solidify their own national language and culture. However, there are many different cultural groups in Ukraine, but if you have to break it down, there are pro-European Ukrainians, and then there are pro-Russian Ukrainians. This divide brought about many challenges in establishing a single national identity.
At the time, they thought that president Leonid Kuchma was the right man for the job. He was previously the Communist head of a factory building nuclear missiles. But with the changeover to independence, Kuchma vowed to reform the country into a democracy. He went to church and exuded a sense of pride in embracing the new way. But that was what the new president wanted people to believe. His actions were a complete contradiction to the policies he preached. In actual fact, he was an authoritarian who ruled the country, much like it was governed under the old Soviet system.
Towards the end of the decade, most Ukrainians had lost their taste for Kuchma. So in 1999, when it was time for re-election and again, and Kuchma was voted into power, it was a big surprise. People were confused and tried to make sense of it all. Newspapers only reported on the facts: he won the election, and that was that.
But journalists like Georgiy Gongadze knew that something wasn’t right. Like many of his colleagues, Georgiy was determined to expose the problems within the Ukrainian government. Not only to the people of Ukraine but to the whole world.
Georgiy Ruslanovich Gongadze was born in Tbilisi, Georgia on the 21st of May 1969. His dad Ruslan was a politician and his mom, Lesya, a nurse. He had a twin brother who was stolen from the maternity ward. The family never found their lost baby and Georgiy, whom everyone called Giya, was raised as a single child. His parents divorced when he was six, but he maintained a good relationship with both of them throughout the rest of his life.
When Giya finished high school, he did his military service, as it was compulsory. He enrolled in the Soviet Border Troops and served between 1987 and 1989, protecting Soviet-Georgia’s borders, under the direction of the KGB. He was posted in Turkmenistan, on the border to Iran.
He met his wife, Mariana Stetsko, at a non-Communist music festival in 1989 and they got married the next year and settled in Lviv [Luh-viu]. Giya worked as an English teacher, and at the same time, studied at the Tbilisi Institute of Foreign Languages, which today, is Ilia State University.
Growing up in a home with political discussions at the dinner table, Giya was always interested in politics. He knew from a young age that he wanted to be a political activist. When he came home from the army, he joined forces with his dad in the national movement ‘Free Georgia’. His dad was the leader, and he was the spokesperson. The president declared Ruslan Gongadze an enemy of the people, and he was forced to go into hiding. Giya returned to Tbilisi to face the political conflict that had become a violent and dangerous civil war. By 1992 it was all over, Giya went home to Mariana, only to find that she had left him.
It was his mother who encouraged him to write about victims of the Georgian civil war, and he was offered his first job as a journalist was in Georgia. He often worked in Ukraine, furthering Georgia’s interests. The Georgian government sent his father to Kyiv to receive cancer treatment, Giya decided to stay.
He met his second wife, Myroslava Petryshyn, when he founded the Georgian Culture Association in Ukraine. Myroslava was also a journalist and political activist, highly educated with a master’s degree in civil law. She was also the assistant director on a documentary film, made by Georgiy, called, ‘Shadows of War’. The couple married in 1995 and had twin daughters, Nonna and Solomiya in 1997.
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It didn’t take long for the energetic, intelligent Georgiy Gongadze to make his mark as a journalist in Ukraine. Before long, he was hosting his own radio show on the station Kontynent called ‘First Round with Georgiy Gongadze”. The Kuchma government did not like the independent and outspoken nature of his show.
At the time of the 1999 elections, Georgiy worked in Nataliya Vitrenko’s campaign as press secretary. Although his political alliance was apparent, he still wrote impartial articles as a freelance journalist. Georgiy interviewed Kuchma during his re-election campaign, and in a press conference, directly asked him about his role in corruption. The journalist claimed Ukrainian officials laundered millions of dollars overseas and law enforcement turned a blind eye. He accused Kuchma of knowing about it and not doing anything to stop it – top officials were still keeping their positions under Kuchma’s rule. Kuchma denied the allegations and stubbornly said that no-one stole anything. This public confrontation was a line in the sand – Kuchma did not like the cocky journalist at all. One can safely say: the feeling was mutual.
In January 2000, Georgiy Gongadze visited New York and Washington with two fellow Ukrainian journalists, Olena Prytula and Sergiy Sholokh. Georgiy had a letter, signed by 60 Ukrainian journalists, informing their American counterparts about stifling freedom of speech violations in their country. They handed the letter to the US State Department, three days before Kuchma’s official visit to the US.
Georgiy was extremely bright and well-informed. He was prepared to go the extra mile and seek the truth. But many publications did not want to hire him. It was too risky in Kuchma’s Ukraine. Editors did not wish to invite unnecessary pressure from the government and risk the fall-out.
But he knew he had to keep on going. In April 2000 he founded influential online newspaper ‘Ukrayinska Pravda’ (which translates to Ukrainian Truth) along with Olena Prytula. They reported on politics and news in Ukraine, and they were self-appointed watchdogs of Kuchma and his government. Georgiy was openly critical of Kuchma and investigated corruption within the government, exposing all his findings online.
Georgiy also looked to expose the strong-muscle tactics used by SBU, Ukraine’s Security Service. If journalists wrote provocative articles, or speak to international publications, they received what was called a gypsy’s warning: computers and hard drives were taken, documents burnt and the subject was followed by an official chaperone, compliments of the government.
In June 2000, he wrote an open letter to Ukraine’s Chief Prosecutor, citing harassment by the SBU. They made false allegations against him to discredit him among other journalists, implicating him in a murder investigation in Odessa. He also said that he was being followed and that an unmarked vehicle was posted outside his home, watching every move he made. Police issued a statement, denying that he was under surveillance.
Three months later, Georgiy Gongadze disappeared.
On the evening of the 16th of September 2000, the 31-year-old journalist went to the apartment of his co-worker and mistress, Olena Prytula. There was nothing out of the ordinary during their time together. Georgiy was over-flowing with ideas, as usual. They discussed work and some personal matters, then he said that he needed to get home, as he had the keys to his house and didn’t want his wife and young daughters to wait outside in the cold, as they were returning from a night out. He told Olena that he would call her the next day and left around 10:30pm. Olena never heard from him again.
When Georgiy didn’t make it home, his wife immediately knew that there was something bigger at play. From the onset, she suspected he was taken by henchmen of the government, not doubting for a minute that his disappearance had to do with politics. At first, Georgiy’s family and friends hoped that he was just being kept hostage somewhere. It was not uncommon for outspoken Ukrainian journalists to be beaten up – it was a warning from politicians to keep their distance.
But Georgiy made no contact and was nowhere to be found. Myroslava did not want to think that he had been murdered, but had to face the possibility. When Olena heard from a mutual friend that Georgiy never made it home, she went looking for him, walking around Kyiv, desperately looking for him. She said:
“We in Ukraine say that when you see a white dog howling, someone has died. At that moment, I realised that something had happened, and I called the militia.”
Days after his disappearance, the two women in Georgiy’s life, Myroslava and Olena held a press conference in the Interfax Ukraine press agency. Myroslava spoke and said that she was there as his wife and that Olena was present as an editor for Ukrajinska Pravda.
The women had to be strong and put personal issues aside. They wanted the same thing: to find out what had happened to the man they loved. But both women also knew that Georgiy’s disappearance was part of a bigger problem. As journalists, they understood they had to shine a light on the fact that freedom of speech in Ukraine had become a dangerous game. Myroslava issued a statement on a later occasion, saying:
“Crimes against journalists and politicians in Ukraine and other post-Soviet countries are still being frequently committed, with no legal repercussions for their perpetrators. Therefore, I deem it vital for the international community not only to monitor and react to such politically motivated crimes but also to take an active role in their investigation.”
Olena published the first article about the missing journalist the morning after he vanished. She rallied up all their fellow journalists to report on Georgiy’s disappearance, to put pressure on authorities to solve it.
On the 21st of September, journalists stood up and walked out of parliament, making a statement, saying that they refused to return until Georgiy Gongadze was found. A week after he went missing, friends, family, and concerned members of the public held a candlelight vigil in Kyiv’s central avenue, demanding an investigation into the disappearance. Also present, were 200 fellow journalists, who arrived in silent protest, marching behind a banner that read: Who’s next?
But the investigation seemed to be going nowhere. Myroslava Gongadze was given desk space inside the offices of the opposition party, from where she worked tirelessly, campaigning for information about her husband’s whereabouts. She refused to give up and knew she had to find him, if not for her own sake, then for the sake of their three-year-old twin daughters.
Prosecutors leaked information to Myroslava, that Georgiy was killed by gangsters because he owed them money. She didn’t believe it, as she was aware of his financial position and knew he had no debts. She felt investigators went down that track to steer suspicion away from the fact that he vanished because of political reasons.
“They keep asking me to recount what I did the day before Georgy disappeared, instead of asking about what happened last July, when goons were sitting on the bench in front of our apartment building, keeping track of our comings and goings,” Myroslava said.
Confronted by many allegations, president Kuchma publicly denied that Georgiy Gongadze was silenced and announced that he would personally oversee an investigation into the journalist’s disappearance.
Olena Prytula recalled the support of the journalist community in the time after Georgiy’s disappearance.
“My colleagues put his photo, not actually a photo, but his black silhouette, in the newspaper, newspapers everywhere, on TV, and it was counting – something like:
‘17 days; and we don’t know anything about Georgiy Gongadze.’
We did it just to keep the militia very active. Just to make everybody in Ukraine know that we want the militia to find Georgiy.”
The picture of the black silhouette became a symbol for seeking justice for all missing or murdered journalists in Ukraine, not only Georgiy.
On the 3rd of November 2000, two months after Georgiy disappeared, a farmer out for a walk in the Tarashcha Forest, a 100 miles outside of Kyiv, found the headless torso of a man. It was lying, undiscovered in the shallow trench of an uprooted tree, covered with foliage.
When a local journalist learnt about the discovery, he speculated whether it was Georgiy. Authorities initially said that the unidentified body had been dumped there, long before Gongadze went missing.
The body was taken to the local coroner, but before he could commence with the post mortem examination, suited men from Kyiv arrived and took the body away to the regional forensic lab. The coroner had already started forensic procedures and had made some notes. Before he could copy anything, the Prosecutor General’s office confiscated his computer and all documentation related to the case.
But they could not erase the coroner’s memory, and he told journalists that the victim was naked, decapitated, and acid was poured over his entire body. Because of the advanced stage of decomposition, a cause of death was not apparent without a proper examination. The coroner felt that the acid made contact with the victim’s skin while he was still alive. He also thought that the beheading was the most probable cause of death.
With so much media attention, authorities had to relent and allowed Myroslava to see if she could identify the body as her husband’s remains. Here is what she said about her experience:
“What I saw under the plastic sheet didn’t look like a body. There were some chunks of flesh, remains of a corpse, bones and rotten meat. I discovered that the body was not only unattended but hadn’t been kept in a refrigerator for ten days. The authorities had clearly made every effort to prevent anyone from discovering how he had died or who could have done it. The body was so decomposed that it was impossible to determine the cause and the date of his death.”
From photos of the burial site in the woods, Myroslava was able to confirm that the body was, without a doubt, her husband. She saw his jewellery and a scar on his hand, one caused by a shrapnel injury while he covered the conflict in Georgia.
Official reports didn’t confirm that the headless body belonged to Georgiy Gongadze until 2003. His remains were sent to his family for burial, but his mother refused to accept the remains sent to them, claiming that it was not her son, despite DNA evidence proving otherwise.
80 journalists signed an open letter addressed to the Kucha government, urging them to investigate Georgiy’s disappearance as a homicide. It stated that crimes against journalists have gone un-investigated during the years of Ukrainian independence. A list of 13 murdered journalists (killed over the time-span of 10 years) was drawn up.
Less than a month after Georgiy’s remains were found, one of the biggest scandals in Ukrainian political history came to light. An incident that made Nixon’s Watergate look like a high school prank. Kuchma’s rival, Socialist Party leader Oleksandr Moroz released secret audio recordings made in president Kuchma’s inner chamber. It revealed Kuchma’s true colours: he was a vengeful and ruthless man.
The person behind the recordings was one of Kuchma’s bodyguards, Major Nikolai Melnychenko. Days before the news broke and he was identified as the one who had made the recordings, he fled Ukraine. He made a video recording from his secret hide-out, confirming that it was him and that he took it upon himself to expose the corrupt and unscrupulous government. He said that he acted on behalf of a group who called themselves ‘Ukrainian Patriots’.
The Major said that he decided to record the president’s conversations, because he witnessed so much corruption and vengeance, that he became disillusioned. He realised that Ukraine was in trouble as long as Kuchma stayed in power. Someone needed to take action, and he was in the perfect position to do something, so he did.
Altogether, it was over 1000 hours of audiotape, recorded in the space of about 12 months. 25 minutes were made public. The tape recordings proved that Kuchma and members of his administration used money from criminal enterprises (like illegal arms and drug-smuggling). They transferred the cash to Kuchma’s and other ministers’ personal banking accounts to purchase properties abroad. This was precisely what Georgiy Gongadze had confronted Kuchma about during his re-election campaign.
In the tapes, President Leonid Kuchma and parliamentarian Volodymyr Lytvyn can also be heard discussing the need to silence the journalist with other top-ranking officials. They were annoyed by his writings and wanted him to stop. In a conversation with interior minister Yuri Kravchenko, Kuchma made a suggestion: to have Georgiy kidnapped by Chechen rebels who could take him to Georgia. Later on in the conversation, he says:
“That Gongadze son-of-a-bitch. Goodbye, good riddance.”
Shocking as the evidence was, it didn’t surprise his partner, Olena Prytula at all. She said that Kuchma never forgot any news article that criticised him. He held grudges and had no filter when he spoke about someone he disliked. She relented that perhaps Kuchma didn’t necessarily want Georgiy dead, but having said what he did about Georgiy was why he ended up dead.
Georgiy Gongadze’s disappearance and murder was the final nail in the coffin for most Ukrainians. On the back of the cassette scandal, months of protests against the Kuchma government followed. Everyone banded together, pro-Soviets, democrats, extreme nationalists… Everyone called for president Kuchma to be removed from power. Georgiy’s mother Lesya was instrumental during the protests, making speeches, pleading for justice for her son and others. Warning parents that what happened to her son, will happen to their children – as long as Kuchma was in power.
Kuchma denied any involvement in Georgiy’s death and said the audiotapes were fake. Investigators sent the cassettes to the USA where they were authenticated by the FBI. Cornered by the results, Kuchma hit back, saying it was his voice, yes, but the content was edited from other conversations to make him appear guilty. No one believed him. They called for his immediate resignation, but he refused to step down.
The European Union was not satisfied with Ukraine’s investigation into Godgadze’s murder and pressured Ukrainian government to be more pro-active. The Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, the OSCE, labelled Gongadze’s death as ‘censorship by killing‘. The Ukrainian government used the most brutal way of controlling what was being said in the media: silencing anyone who spoke out against them.
At the beginning of March 2001, protesters who had set up camp on Kyiv’s main road were forcibly removed by police.
In May that same year, Interior Minister Yuriy Smirnov declared that Georgiy Godgadze was murdered by hooligans in an act of senseless violence. He claimed the killers were linked with a notorious gangster called ‘Cyclops’. But the Ukrainian people didn’t buy it. They were not appeased at all and in September 2002, two years after Georgiy’s murder, mass protests erupted once again. The police came down with force and protesters were taken into custody, and many of them were severely beaten.
After the cassette scandal broke, many seemingly random attacks on people that opposed Kuchma were explained. Like in the case of Alexander Yeliaskevich, an independent Deputy who intervened when Kuchma initiated a referendum to limit lawmakers and give himself more autonomy. Soon after this, Yeliaskevich was attacked on the street, but this wasn’t merely a mugging. It was an intentional hit, someone who was sent to kill him. The person gave him a forceful uppercut to the nose. Despite having suffered a broken nose, brain trauma, concussion and severe facial damage, Yeliaskevich survived. But the message was clear: do not interfere with Kuchma’s ambitions.
Yeliaskevich always suspected that Kuchma was behind the attack, suspicions that were confirmed by the same audio recordings from Kuchma’s office. The orders were given by Kuchma himself, saying that Yeliaskevich should be dealt with in force – he should not be able to walk after his attack.
Then there was the case of Oleksiy Podolsky, a journalist who had written a series of articles criticising Kuchma. In one report, he claimed that the 1999 elections were rigged in favour of Kuchma, who actually ended fifth. In June 2000, Podolsky was bundled into a car while walking on a street in Kyiv, in a sordid ritual referred to as a ‘Ukrainian Taxi Ride’. Podolsky told Georgiy Gongadze about the incident when they met at the office of a mutual friend. In the same month, Georgiy wrote the open letter, reporting that he too was being followed by the SBU.
In 2004, evidence came to light that a month after Gongadze’s letter, a man called General Pukach was accused of personally destroying all documents regarding the surveillance operation on Georgiy Gongadze and his family. The General was investigated, but the case was closed without any charges brought against him.
It is believed that Georgiy Gongadze’s kidnapping happened in a similar fashion to Podolsky’s. Here is Podolsky’s spine-chilling account of what happened after he was taken:
“One of them was holding me down by the hair and told me to crawl out of the car. ‘You’re gonna die now’, he said, ‘we’re giving you a spade, and first you’re going to dig your own grave‘. Then the car driver got out carrying a spade and a can of petrol.”
Podolsky did not die that day. He believed that the petrol and spade were only introduced to mentally torture him, to make him think that he was going to die. He was brutally beaten with a cosh stick, within an inch of his life.
A theory was formed, that in Georgiy’s case, the intention was to scare him, but that he died during the assault. In a panic, his attackers poured acid over him and decapitated him to conceal his identity.
Four years after his murder, a gangster only identified as ‘K’ reportedly confessed to killing the journalist. Before the claims could be verified by independent journalists, ‘K’ died of spinal injuries while being held in police custody.
The run-up to the 2004 elections was a time of turmoil and hope, all mixed up together. Viktor Yushchenko [Yoosh-chenko] vowed that if he came to power, he would prioritise the investigation into Georgiy’s murder. His death became emblematic with everything rotten inside Kuchma’s government. Yushchenko became President of Ukraine in January 2005 and did not forget his promise.
On the first of March, only a month after Yushchenko took office, three arrests were made in connection with Georgiy’s murder. The men were senior officials of the Ukrainian Interior Ministry’s foreign surveillance department and criminal intelligence unit employed by the Interior Ministry. General Olesky Pukach (who headed the interior ministry’s surveillance department at the time of the killing) was nowhere to be found, he went into hiding, and the chief prosecutor issued an international warrant for his arrest.
Justice Minister Yuriy Kravchenko was convinced Kuchma intended to have Georgiy killed. He said that even though there was no direct order given during the conversations on the cassettes, it was clearly implied. Kravchenko explained that this is how it worked in Kuchma’s Ukraine – the President did not have to spell out what needed to be done. His closest officials understood what he wanted, and they made it happen.
Minister Kravchenko, who was also heard on the tapes and subjected to investigation himself, was found dead in his summer house on March the 4th 2005, one day before he was supposed to give testimony to prosecutors. He was the superior officer of four men charged with Georgiy’s murder. Kravchenko’s death was ruled a suicide, a ruling that has been questioned by the media from the start. He was shot twice in the head, which does not seem likely in the event of suicide. He left a suicide note, which read:
“My dear ones, I am not guilty of anything. Forgive me, for I became a victim of the political intrigues of President Kuchma and his entourage. I am leaving you with a clear conscious, farewell.”
The authenticity of the note has also been brought into question.
The high-profile murder trial of Georgiy Gongadze’s began on the 9th of January 2006. In court, the horrible truth about Georgiy Godgadze’s last moments was finally revealed. On the evening of September 16th 2000, after leaving Olena Prytula’s apartment, Georgiy was taken off a street in Kyiv as he was making his way home. He hailed what he thought was a regular taxi, but it was not. Two men had been following him and waited for him. General Pukach was in the passenger seat, and one of his subordinates was driving. They took him to Sukholesy village, 50 miles south of Kyiv.
According to the SBU agents on trial, Georgiy Gongadze was a spy and had visited a safe house on the night they took him. In captivity, they held him down and threatened him with torture if he didn’t answer their questions. They asked why he met with foreign intelligence. According to the accused officers, Georgiy didn’t deny the accusation that he was a spy, and said that he went to the safe house to get money.
Although the journalist complied, he was still tortured. Colonel Popovych beat Georgiy repeatedly, mainly on his torso, while the others held their prisoner down. Georgiy begged the colonel not to kill him. That is when the most senior one of the group, General Pukach, stepped in and strangled their captive with his bare hands. Georgiy was strong and resisted the assault as much as he could. Popovych beat him again, in the ribs and Georgiy began to choke. By this time, Pukach had taken off Georgiy’s belt and flung it around his neck, pulling tight and breaking his Adam’s apple. Moments later, Georgiy Gondaze was dead.
In October General Pukach moved the body to the location where it was eventually found. He took the head to another location. Who decapitated him, has never been revealed.
In March 2008, Ukraine court sentenced Colonel Protasov to 13 years, and Colonels Kostenko and Popovych to 12 years each. All three men said they acted at the behest of their superior officer, General Pukach, who – at the time of the trial – was still a wanted person by Ukrainian law-enforcement agencies. They also claimed that did not know Pukach intended end the journalist’s life.
The men were sent to Menska Prison, a facility specifically for ex-law enforcement officers who had been found guilty of crimes. Even after being found guilty, they received a form of leniency.
In December 2010, investigators told the press that Minister Kravchenko was the one who gave the order to General Pukach and his men to kill Georgiy Gongadze. They kept surveillance on the journalist for five months, planning his kidnapping.
Most people dismissed this revelation and believed that the order to kill Georgiy Godgadze came straight from the top: from President Leonid Kuchma himself. Because the secret recordings inside Kuchma’s chambers were made unlawfully, it could never be used as evidence to charge anyone with murder or conspiracy to murder. Still, a criminal case against the former PresidentPresident was opened in 2011 but was closed later that same year, due to a lack of evidence.
Former role players, ministers and such, have spoken from exile, claiming that Kuchma paid millions to squash the investigation into his involvement in the murder, and it worked. As always, Kuchma denied these accusations.
After Georgiy’s murder, his widow Myroslava and their two children moved to the United States, where they were given political asylum. They have lived in New York since 2001.
In 2005, Georgiy Gongadze was awarded the Hero of Ukraine honour by President Viktor Yushchenko. Later on, president Poroshenko also remembered the…
“…big contribution of Gongadze into the development of independent Ukraine, protection of the freedom of speech, fight for the development of independent mass media”.
In the centre of Kyiv, a plaque commemorates Georgiy Gongadze and other journalists who lost their lives under questionable circumstances during Kuchma’s rule.
BBC’s Tom Mangold interviewed the former President asking him about the murdered journalists in his country, Kuchma replied:
“When you quote the number of dead journalists to me, you’ve got to look at the real cause of death in each case. Do you know how many people are dying all over the world? But you don’t ask me about them, you don’t ask why so many other people die. I’ve had to swallow a lot during these years, including a bit from journalists. But I’ve personally never issued any orders to persecute any newspaper, any TV or radio channel or any journalist. If it happened and I repeat I was not involved, it would have been a mistake and part of the learning process.”
In July of 2009, General Pukach was arrested as the chief officer who had ordered Gongadze’s murder. He confessed to the killing after six years on the run. He was arrested in the Ukrainian countryside where he lived with a woman who told people that he was the brother of her dead husband. Nobody suspected that he was the former General Pukach. When he was arrested, he wanted to show investigators where Georgiy’s skull was, but his lawyer prevented him from providing the information.
Pukach claimed that Colonel Popovych was the one who killed Georgiy, not him. He confirmed the sequence of events as it was told in court that the journalist fought back. But he said that Popovych retaliated and punched Georgiy in the neck, killing him. Pukach claimed that the other officers who witnessed the murder were tortured in prison and lied about him being the killer, so they could get lighter sentences. He said he went into hiding on the orders of Minister Kravchenko before he committed suicide.
Days after the arrest of Pukach, skull fragments were discovered, that investigators believed belonged to Georgiy Gongadze. It was found in the woods near Bila Tserkva, 15 miles from where the journalist was killed. Pukach was the one who led them to the location, against the advice of his lawyer.
By this time, Georgiy’s mother Lesya refused to believe any information given to her by the Ukrainian government and the likes of Pukach. She said that she would have the fragments tested for DNA at an independent, lab in another country. In 2010, she declared that the fragments did not belong to her son. It was left at that, and no one followed up on it after her death in 2013.
Oleksiy Podolsky (Georgiy’s journalist friend who was kidnapped and beaten up a couple of months before Georgiy disappeared) still feels that Pukach should not be the only person to take the fall for what happened back then. He said:
“Pukach is only a weapon of the system. He got an order and he fulfilled it. 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.”
Of the men convicted of Georgiy’s murder, only one has passed away. Colonel Protosov died in prison in 2015, nine years into his 13-year-sentence. Colonels Kostenko and Popovych were released from prison after serving their time and taken to a camp for former prisoners. General Pukach was sentenced to life, and his appeals have all been denied so far.
In 2015, Ukraine’s Prosecutor General opened a case against the whistleblower, Major Melnychenko, who was behind the infamous recordings. Melnychenko was accused of state treason, revealing state secrets, abuse of power and co-operation with foreign security services.
After the scandal broke, Melnychenko fled to the US, where he was given political refugee status. He reportedly still lives in New York’s Little Russia but moves around frequently, as he knows there is a price on his head. In an interview with BBC’s Tom Mangold, Melnychenko said:
“I think I’ll be alive for some time. But I can’t rule out the possibility of an accident in the future. Let’s face it; it will happen sooner or later, I know how they work. Anyway, I took a conscious decision to do what I’m doing, and I’m not going to change my mind now.”
Melnychenko was offered six million dollars in exchange for his silence. He declined, and pledged his full co-operation to US authorities, investigating the events that led to his exile.
Back in Ukraine, Prosecutor General Lutsenko spoke candidly about the on-going investigation into Georgiy’s Gongadze’s death. He said that no evidence proves Kuchma ordered the hit. Kuchma was clear about his dislike of Georgiy and alluded to the fact that he had to be silenced. But the President never gave the direct order. Everyone in his inner-circle knew he wanted to get rid of the journalist, though. Lutsenko said:
“…the talk about the punishment of Gongadze led to some kind of race (to see) who will go farther in fulfilling the will of the dictator.”
In the end, it is believed that it was President Kumcha who expressed the need to ‘deal with Gongadze’, but it was Minister Kravchenko’s initiative to kill him.
In a strange twist of fate, sixteen years after Georgiy was taken from the streets, Radio Vesti journalist Pavel Sheremet was killed in a car bombing. The attack happened early one morning as he left his girlfriend’s apartment. His girlfriend was none other than Olena Prytula. She has been called a black widow and her involvement in the murders of her two high profile journalist boyfriends, is something many people speculate about. She had not been formally investigated and insists that it was all just a case of macabre coincidence.
Georgiy Gongadze was finally buried in Kyiv on March 22nd, 2016 in the St Nicholas the Embankment Church. The service was attended by hundreds of citizens, journalists and of course, Georgiy’s family. No political speeches or statements were allowed by the family, and they asked journalists not to ask for comments as they paid their last respects to a phenomenal man, who has left a mark on Ukrainian history that will never be erased.
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