Ex-Ukraine Official Linked to Murder Inquiry Is Found Dead

By STEVEN LEE MYERS

New York Times

March 4, 2005

MOSCOW, March 4 - Ukraine's former interior minister, a man suspected of involvement in the abduction and murder of a prominent journalist in 2000, died this morning in a cottage outside the country's capital, Kiev, in what officials called a suicide.

Yuri F. Kravchenko, who as interior minister ordered his agents to trail the journalist, Georgy Gongadze, shot himself in the head only hours before he was supposed to meet with prosecutors to be questioned for the first time in the case today, the officials said. Later reports said he suffered two gunshot wounds.

Mr. Gongadze's murder was one of the most sordid of the many scandals that swirled around the former president, Leonid D. Kuchma, who stepped down in January with the inauguration of Viktor A. Yushchenko. Mr. Kravchenko's death indicated that solving Mr. Gongadze's murder could prove equally sordid - and mysterious.

As news of his death spread, some members of Parliament called for Mr. Kuchma's immediate arrest, suggesting that Mr. Kravchenko might have been killed to prevent him from revealing high-level complicity in Mr. Gongadze's death. On Monday, a criminal suspect previously identified as a possible witness in the case was wounded in a grenade attack.

The investigation into Mr. Gongadze's murder foundered during Mr. Kuchma's last years as president. Many say it never really started. But in the wake of Mr. Yushchenko's election, investigators have pursued it aggressively and appear to be making progress.

Mr. Yushchenko and the country's prosecutor general, Svyatoslav M. Piskun, announced earlier this week that the authorities had arrested three security officers, a general and two colonels who worked for the Interior Ministry under Mr. Kravchenko.

On Tuesday Mr. Yushchenko accused Mr. Kuchma's government of "sheltering Gongadze's killers." A day later Mr. Piskun told a press conference that investigators knew who ordered Mr. Gongadze's death, but he declined to elaborate. He did announce that investigators had invited Mr. Kravchenko to testify as a witness this morning.

Mr. Kravchenko's death is not the first among ministers who served in Mr. Kuchma's government. On Dec. 27, the day after Mr. Yushchenko's victory in a third round of voting, the transportation minister, Hryhoriy Kirpa, died in what was also ruled a suicide, though one that spawned dark rumors that perhaps his hand might have been forced.

Hryhory O. Omelchenko, chairman of a parliamentary committee that investigated the case, said in a telephone interview that Mr. Kravchenko ordered an officer in his ministry, Lt. Gen. Oleksey Pukach, to abduct Mr. Gongadze on Mr. Kuchma's orders. General Pukach is now wanted. He said Mr. Kravchenko should have been arrested sooner - to save his life.

"I was screaming my head off, begging the prosecutor to arrest Kravchenko," he said.

Mr. Kuchma, now on vacation in the Czech Republic, has repeatedly denied any involvement in Mr. Gongadze's death. He plans to return to Ukraine next week, Interfax reported, citing the charity foundation he now heads.

Mr. Yushchenko, appearing in Parliament, said Mr. Kravchenko's death would be investigated, but his remarks suggested that he had little doubt that Mr. Kravchenko killed himself because he was somehow implicated in Mr. Gongadze's murder.

"Everybody has a choice - either to cooperate with the court and the prosecutor, give evidence, stand public trial, defend one's rights and honor," Mr. Yushchenko said in remarks posted on the presidential Web site. "Otherwise one can judge oneself."

Mr. Kravchenko, 53, was found by family members who heard a gunshot early this morning at his country house in Koncha-Zaspa, an elite region outside of Kiev that includes cottages of many government officials, including Mr. Kuchma, the Deputy Interior Minister, Petro Koliada, told Interfax. Mr. Kuchma dismissed him as interior minister in 2001.

Yury V. Boychenko, a spokesman for the Prosecutor General's Office, said in a telephone interview that Mr. Kravchenko had been summoned as a witness and that despite the coincidence of timing, the meeting might not be the proximate cause of his suicide.

"It would be better to associate it with certain of his activities in the past," he said, "not just because he was summoned to our office. We call many people."

Andrei Fedur, a lawyer for Mr. Gongadze's mother, Oleksandra, expressed doubt about the suicide, saying he knew Mr. Kravchenko.

"I shall never believe that this man could commit suicide," he said.

He added that his death could lead to a premature closing of the case.

"What has happened is very convenient," he said, "because a dead man cannot defend himself."

Prime Minister Yulia V. Tymoshenko, an ardent critic of Mr. Kuchma's, also appeared not entirely convinced by the official statements that Mr. Kravchenko committed suicide.

"If he really committed this act himself, it may indicate that he was afraid of taking responsibility for developments surround Gongadze's murder," she said in remarks reported by Interfax. "If it was not a suicide, then it was an attempt to conceal the truth about the murder."

Mr. Gongadze's work for an Internet newspaper, Ukrainska Pravda, irritated Mr. Kuchma and his circle. Surreptitious recordings made by one of Mr. Kuchma's bodyguards, who is now in the United States, included more than a dozen references to him by Mr. Kuchma, Mr. Kravchenko and others. He disappeared in September 2000 and his body - headless - was found two months later in a forest 75 miles from Kiev.

At his press conference earlier this week, Mr. Piskun, the prosecutor general, provided new details in the case, suggesting that some of those arrested were talking. He said four men abducted Mr. Gongadze from a street in Kiev and strangled him in a warehouse in Kiev. They then decapitated him, doused his corpse with gasoline and burned it. Investigators also displayed a sport utility vehicle they said was used in his abduction.