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. Here is the first story in the project: https://www.kyivpost.com/ukraine-pol­i­tics/by-fail­ing-to-solve-killings-of-jour­nal­ists-ukraine-grants-cor­rupt-of­fi­cials-im­punity.html 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.

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 fa­vor 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 trav­eled 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.

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 on­line.

Olek­siy Pukach, 66, ex-head of the In­te­rior Min­istry of Ukraine's sur­veil­lance de­part­ment, talks to the Kyiv Post dur­ing an in­ter­view in Lukian­ivske SIZO pre-trial de­ten­tion cen­ter in Kyiv on July 12, 2019. (Volodymyr Petrov)

Feb. 21, 2009

April 1, 2011

Sept. 17, 2010

July 21, 2009

Dec. 14, 2000

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)

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)

Dec.17, 2000

Nov. 30, 2000

Nov. 23, 2000

Sept. 28, 2000

Sept. 21, 2000

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