Ukraine ex-minister found dead before hearing

Ukraine’s former interior minister Yuriy Kravchenko was found dead on Friday in an apparent suicide only hours before prosecutors were expected to grill him about the 2000 slaying of a journalist, dealing a significant blow to an investigation that could implicate former president Leonid Kuchma.

Ukraine’s President Viktor Yushchenko said Kravchenko’s death could be linked to the investigation into the killing of Heorhiy Gongadze, an internet journalist who wrote about top-level corruption under Kuchma.

Interior ministry spokesperson Inna Kisel said Kravchenko’s death “appears to be a suicide”. Ukraine’s TV5 reported that the 53-year-old former police official shot himself at his country residence in an exclusive neighbourhood outside Kiev.

Prosecutors said Kravchenko had been implicated in organising the abduction and killing of Gongadze and had summoned him to give testimony to prosecutors on Friday.

“Everyone has a choice: either appear before the court and publicly stand up for his rights and honor or dispense justice on himself,” Yushchenko said after a brief meeting with parliamentary Speaker Volodymyr Lytvyn, who has also been implicated in Gongadze’s killing.

Gongadze was abducted in Kiev in September 2000, and his decapitated and mutilated body was found several weeks later, buried in a forest outside the capital. His death sparked months of protests against Kuchma, who the opposition alleged had ordered the killing to silence him.

Kuchma, who is currently at a spa in the Czech Republic, has denied any involvement.

In a written statement, Yushchenko said he had ordered Interior Minister Yuriy Lutsenko and Prosecutor General Svyatoslav Piskun to take personal control of the inquiry into Kravchenko’s death.

Yushchenko also told reporters that the Gongadze case is being investigated openly, and that it “has come under control of the entire nation”.

But lawmaker Andriy Shkil blamed prosecutors for Kravchenko’s death, claiming they increased the pressure on him by publicly announcing that he had been summoned to testify.

“His death will make the investigation much more complicated,” he said.

The allegations against Kuchma were based on recordings that Mykola Melnichenko, a former presidential bodyguard, said were made secretly in Kuchma’s office.

On the tapes, Kuchma was overheard repeatedly complaining about Gongadze’s reporting and ordering Kravchenko to “drive him out, throw [him] out, give him to the Chechens”.

Lytvyn, who was Kuchma’s former chief of staff, was also allegedly heard on the tapes saying: “In my opinion, let loose Kravchenko to use alternative methods.”

Kuchma has disputed the tapes’ authenticity and Lytvyn said he is ready to testify in connection with the case.

Kuchma’s spokesperson, Olena Hromnytska, said the former

president had no immediate comment on Kravchenko’s death.

Stepan Khmara, a key pro-government lawmaker, called for Kuchma to be “taken under protective custody immediately”.

Kuchma’s Ukraine Fund said that the former president plans to return home early next week, the Unian news agency reported.

Yushchenko, who was elected in December, has made solving Gongadze’s slaying a top priority for his government, saying it has a moral duty to do so.

On Wednesday, Piskun, the prosecutor general, said investigators have identified all four people involved in Gongadze’s killing and know who the mastermind was, but he refused to reveal the person’s identity.

Two of the four suspects, all employed by Ukraine’s police, are in custody, one is under orders not to leave Kiev and the fourth, senior police official Oleksiy Pukach, is at large and on an international warrant, Piskun said.

Ukraine’s Segodnya newspaper reported that Kravchenko had been under official surveillance since December and ordered not to leave Ukraine.

Hryhoriy Omelchenko, a lawmaker who has repeatedly focused public attention on the need to solve Gongadze’s slaying, said he had asked the prosecutor to detain the former minister more than a month ago for Kravchenko’s protection.

“If he had been arrested, he would be alive,” Omelchenko said.

On Monday, a man identified as a key witness in the case, Yuriy Nesterov, was reportedly wounded in a grenade explosion. Another key witness, former police officer Ihor Honcharov, died in prison two years ago under suspicious circumstances.

In a letter prior to his death, Honcharov had implicated Nesterov in kidnapping, torturing and killing Gongadze.—Sapa-AP

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