Ultima Thule

In ancient times the northernmost region of the habitable world - hence, any distant, unknown or mysterious land.

Monday, March 14, 2005

The bodies mount up

By Aussiegirl
The Los Angeles Times features an excellent article running down (ouch) the numerous suicides, accidents and car crashes that have befallen critics and foes of the Kuchma administration.

All of these deaths and coincidences seem to be falling out of the Kuchma closet now that the Gongadze case and the recent "suicide " of former Interior Minister Kravchenko have brought these long-simmering doubts to the fore. A full 80% of Ukrainians doubt the suicide version of the Kravchenko death, who died of not one, but two self-inflicted gunshot wounds to the head. The first was fired upwards through the chin and exited through the cheek and the upper jaw. Then presumably unfazed and undazed by this first shot he managed to aim at his temple to deliver the coup de gras that ended his life.

The death of Kravchenko, however, seems to have sent the intended message to Kuchma's former bodyguard, Melnychenko, currently living in exile, who secretly taped Kuchma reportedly ordering the murder of Gongadze. He has recently sought help from an expatriate Ukrainian millionaire, who flew a special private plane to evacuate him from Poland to Great Britain. He fears for his life and who can blame him. It is now doubtful that he will return with his tapes to testify in the Gongadze case. The tapes themselves may prove explosive in upredictable ways, implicating possibly not only Kuchma and his top advisors and associates, but possibly pointing to politicians still serving in the current government.

Exactly 13.1% of Ukrainians who responded to a Kiev Post Internet poll believed it was suicide. More than 80% thought Kravchenko was slain this month to prevent him from testifying, possibly implicating former President Leonid D. Kuchma in the decapitation of journalist Georgi Gongadze and other crimes. Many are sure that even if Kravchenko pulled the trigger, he was driven to it by his powerful former friends. It was also ruled suicide when Transportation Minister Hryhoriy Kirpa, believed to be privy to evidence of large-scale vote-rigging in the fall presidential election, was found shot to death Dec. 27 in his bathhouse. And when banker Yuriy Lyakh, a business associate of Kuchma's powerful chief of staff, was found dead in his office Dec. 3, stabbed through the neck with a letter opener from his desk, that was a suicide too.

High-profile Ukrainians have come to untimely ends in recent years by hanging themselves from refrigerator doors by their sweaters, swallowing poison and swerving suddenly into oncoming trucks ? in fact, more than half a dozen outspoken critics of the Kuchma regime have died in unexplained car crashes.

President Viktor Yushchenko nearly died from dioxin poisoning during the election campaign. Now, with the popular revolution that swept the pro-West Yushchenko into power this year, there are growing demands in parliament to open the files on Ukraine's violent past and determine the fate of dozens of opponents of the former regime whose deaths were dismissed as accidents, suicides or unsolved killings.

Equally strong are demands that Kuchma, the tough-talking post-Soviet leader who accumulated vast power before Ukraine's Orange Revolution swept him and his associates from office, be investigated and tried for what happened during his turbulent reign.

"If Ukraine is to become the 'European' country Yushchenko says it is, it must stop being one ? in which skeletons are allowed to rattle eternally in official closets," the Kiev Post editorialized last month. "How can Ukraine move forward if it's weighted down with corpses?" "Kuchma has committed hideous crimes against the people of Ukraine," said Petro Symonenko, first secretary of the Communist Party. "But I would like to inform you that Kuchma is not going to be held criminally liable. Not a single crime will ever be resolved, for one simple reason: The investigation of these crimes will be a trial of not just Kuchma, but the entire system in this country."

Many are convinced that Yushchenko, whose face is scarred from the poisoning, made a secret pact in the waning hours of the election campaign to allow Kuchma to quietly retire ? either to set a precedent for peaceful democratic transition in Ukraine or to protect allies who may have skeletons of their own in Kuchma's closet. But Ukraine's new leaders insist they are determined to get to the bottom of crimes such as the Gongadze killing and will follow the evidence wherever it leads. There are no deals, Justice Minister Roman Zvarych said in an interview.

. . . On Feb. 2, a parliamentary commission presented the country's prosecutor-general with a 26-page report containing what lawmakers claim is evidence that Kuchma and his associates were responsible not only for Gongadze's death but illegal surveillance of political opponents, journalists and nongovernmental organizations, and bribe taking, money laundering and misappropriation that may have reached $10 billion. Yushchenko made it clear from the beginning that he was going to demand answers for Ukraine's disturbing past, including the 1999 death of popular opposition leader Vyacheslav Chornovil, who was killed when his car crashed into a Kamaz truck blocking the road, not long before his planned run against Kuchma in the presidential campaign. Ukraine's roads in recent years have also claimed the lives of Valery Malev, Ukraine's former arms export chief, whose car abruptly swerved into a truck in 2002, a few days after tapes secretly recorded by one of Kuchma's bodyguards revealed that he had discussed the export of air defense missiles to Iraq with the president; Anatoly Yermak, a member of the parliamentary committee investigating organized crime and corruption, whose car plummeted off a road in 2003; and opposition politician Oleksander Yemets, who died in 2001 when his car swerved into a ditch.

Who would go to the trouble of staging a car crash? "I asked the very same question to many people," said Chornovil's son, Taras.

"The answer was the same: Different security services have different traditions they follow. Here, they have honed their skills of organizing car crashes to such perfection that they prefer this method ? even if easier and more obvious methods are available."

Lt. Gen. Oleksander Skipalsky, a former deputy director of the federal security service, or SBU, did not rule out that slayings could have been disguised as traffic accidents. "Of course it's possible," he said in an interview. "As a secret service professional, I can tell you that the most important thing is to formulate the task. And 99% of the time, it will be accomplished."

For much of the last two weeks, the country has been gripped anew with the 5-year-old Gongadze case, starting with Piskun's move this month to arrest three senior police officers, now charged with the investigative reporter's murder.

That was followed within days by the death of Kravchenko, who is heard on the Kuchma bodyguard's tapes being ordered by Kuchma to "throw out" Gongadze and "give him to the Chechens." His cryptic suicide note raised as many questions as it answered.

"My dear ones, I'm not guilty of anything," he wrote. "Please excuse me. I fell victim to political intrigues of President Leonid Kuchma and his associates. I am departing from you with a clear conscience. Farewell." The newly appointed SBU chief, Oleksander Turchynov, told reporters that the first bullet from Kravchenko's 9-millimeter Beretta went through his mouth and out his upper jaw, and was "far from being fatal." The second went through his right temple.

Zvarych, the justice minister, has expressed doubt that the former interior minister could have recovered sufficiently from the shock of the first wound to have delivered the second. "I have certain doubts personally speaking about whether someone can pull the trigger twice in order to commit suicide," he said. "There's this threshold of pain, I think, that one would need to be able to cross in order to be able to do that, something called a 'pain syndrome,' that I think is very difficult to overcome.

"But whether it was suicide or murder, this pattern [of deaths] has begun to emerge as a result of the psychological aftershock that these people [of the former regime] must be dealing with at this point." Because of the widespread doubts over the announcement that Kravchenko's death was a suicide, Piskun said Friday he was pursuing the investigation as if it were a homicide to make sure any possibility of foul play could be ruled out.


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