SUSPECT IN JOURNALIST MURDER CASE ACQUITTED.

Publication: Monitor Volume: 8 Issue: 100

On May 17, a court in Donetsk acquitted Yury Veredyuk, who Ukrainian law enforcers hold responsible for the murder of Ihor Aleksandrov, the director of TOR TV company, in July 2001. Homeless and jobless Veredyuk had insisted that he killed Aleksandrov by mistake. He had maintained that he was promised cash by a Latvian national to murder a lawyer who worked in the same office building with Aleksandrov, but mistook Aleksandrov for the lawyer and beat him to death with a baseball bat. The court ruled that there was no evidence to convict Veredyuk and released him in the courtroom.

The prosecutors immediately appealed and Ukrainian Internal Affairs Minister Yury Smyrnov was outraged. “I was astonished at that court ruling,” he said, commenting on Veredyuk’s release on May 18 during a meeting of CIS investigators near Kyiv. “The court system is neither controlled nor accountable,” he complained. “Now it is a problem to put a criminal in jail.” For Smyrnov, a career Soviet policeman who was educated in a system where courts were expected to rubberstamp sentences drafted by prosecutors, it is apparently hard to understand how the court dared to acquit the suspect in a high-profile case.

Aleksandrov was the second journalist killed in less than a year in Ukraine after Georgy Gongadze’s murder in the autumn of 2000. In the wake of the tape scandal, Aleksandrov’s case once again drew international attention to the problem of the freedom of the press in Ukraine. Parliamentary assemblies of the Council of Europe, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and other international human rights watchdogs, have repeatedly called on Ukraine to conduct an impartial investigation into Aleksandrov’s murder.

Yet Ukrainian MPs, journalists and Aleksandrov’s family raised doubts about both the investigation and the guilt of Veredyuk, who may have been scared into lying. It is hard to imagine Veredyuk, who is frail and has tuberculosis, beating to death a physically stronger man. After Aleksandrov’s death, Secretary of National Security and Defense Council Yevhen Marchuk, who knew Aleksandrov personally, suggested political motives behind his murder. Aleksandrov opposed local authorities and often criticized the police for corruption. Yet the investigators brushed away the political version. Long before the investigation was completed, then Prosecutor-General Mykhaylo Potebenko agreed with Veredyuk’s version and maintained that Aleksandrov was killed in error. In November, a court in the Donetsk region released from custody a local businessman who had been accused of links with organized crime by Aleksandrov and who was then suspected of commissioning the murder.

Veredyuk’s acquittal raises more doubts about the ability of Ukrainian police and investigators to tackle high-profile crime. Aleksandrov’s murder remains unsolved, as does Gongadze’s. But the fact that a local court afforded to disagree with prosecutors and the interior minister in a high-profile case, which would have been unthinkable even a couple of years ago, is a positive sign. The Ukrainian judiciary may be developing into an independent branch of power, which is hard to “control” (STB TV, August 31, 2001; Ukrainska Pravda, October 26, 2001; Inter TV, May 17; Interfax-Ukraine, November 21, 2001, May 18; see the Monitor, July 19, 2001).

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