The investigation into the murder of crusading journalist Heorhiy Gongadze apparently suffered a severe setback last week. Secret information about the whereabouts of General Oleksiy Pukach, whom the Prosecutor-General’s Office holds responsible for killing Gongadze in 2000, was leaked to the press. It has transpired from a subsequent statement by President Viktor Yushchenko that Pukach may be in serious danger.
After Pukach’s brief arrest in October 2003 on orders from Prosecutor-General Sviatyslav Piskun, then-President Leonid Kuchma fired Piskun. Reinstated in the Prosecutor-General’s post last December by the courts, Piskun promised Yushchenko that he would solve the Gongadze case. Speaking in May, he said that, in order to find the truth, three things remained to be done: question fugitive security officer Mykola Melnychenko, who claims to have wiretapped a conversation implicating Kuchma in Gongadze’s murder; carry out additional tests on Gongadze’s body; and find Pukach.
Pukach has been hiding all this time, and it was widely believed he was hiding from justice in Russia, following the example of several of Ukraine’s former top officials. But the Ukrainian newspaper Segodnya reported in early April, quoting sources at the Prosecutor-General’s Office, that Pukach had become acquainted with a Jewish Diaspora woman and was going to emigrate to Israel with her help. Mainstream media largely ignored the report. But on June 23 Segodnya caused a great sensation by reporting that local special services had spotted Pukach somewhere in Israel on June 17. According to Segodnya, agents of the Ukrainian Security Service (SBU) and the Interior Ministry hurried to Israel on June 18-19, apparently in order to locate Pukach.
Hardly by coincidence, on June 21 the weekly newspaper Stolichnye novosti ran a long interview with Deputy Prosecutor-General Viktor Shokin, who is the main investigator for the Gongadze case. Shokin said that the two police colonels who had been arrested on the case earlier this year testified that their orders to follow Gongadze on September 15-16, 2000, came from Pukach personally. They said that after they kidnapped Gongadze, Pukach directed the car to his father-in-law’s house in Kyiv Region and then to a forest, where he strangled Gongadze and ordered the body burned. Afterwards the body was transported to a different place, where it was eventually found decapitated in November 2000. Asked whether Pukach is still alive, Shokin said that he is hiding abroad: “The SBU and the Interior Ministry are searching for him. Much has been done, but alas…”
Segodnya’s sensational leak of June 23 showed that something went wrong in the search for Pukach. President Yushchenko indirectly confirmed the leak, when his press service issued a statement on June 24 saying that Yushchenko wanted “General Pukach to be brought to Ukraine alive,” and adding that the investigators had the necessary information on Pukach, which “they have been analyzing for four days now.” This disclosure was probably a mistake.
If the investigators were really going to capture Pukach in Israel, the leak may have spoiled everything, either prompting him to flee or, quite possibly, alerting people who might be interested in keeping him silent to go after him. The Ukrainian Interior Ministry and the Prosecutor-General’s Office have offered no comment, while the Israeli Foreign Ministry hurried to deny Segodnya’s report.
However, the influential Zerkalo nedeli weekly has insisted that Pukach was found in Israel. According to the newspaper, the SBU traced Pukach two months ago with the help of the Israeli special services, even though Pukach had changed his surname. But Segodnya’s report and Yushchenko’s subsequent statement may have ruined matters irreparably. According to Zerkalo nedeli, information was leaked to Segodnya following a secret meeting at the Prosecutor-General’s Office on June 22, at which Israel’s request for additional data on Pukach, needed to detain him, was discussed: “The Ukrainian and Israeli special services were shocked upon reading the report.” Zerkalo nedeli pointed out that Segodnya’s informer had committed a serious crime, and said that the source of the leak must be a deputy prosecutor-general.
The Melnychenko tapes, which the Prosecutor-General’s Office views as serious evidence, revealed that the order to do away with Gongadze came from the very top of the Kuchma administration. In one of the secretly recorded conversations, somebody with a voice resembling then-Interior Minister Yuriy Kravchenko told Kuchma that his “eagles” would deal with Gongadze. The Prosecutor-General’s Office has failed to question Melnychenko, who for not quite clear reasons refuses to cooperate with Piskun. Kravchenko was found dead with two bullets in his head in March (see EDM, March 7). If the investigators fail to catch Pukach before it is too late, another very important link to those who ordered Gongadze’s murder may be lost forever.
(Interfax-Ukraine, May 27; Stolichnye novosti, June 21; Segodnya, April 7; June 23; LIGABiznesInform, June 23; Obkom.net.ua, June 24; Moskovsky komsomolets, Zerkalo nedeli, June 25)