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Correspondent Thursday, 18 April, 2002, 15:27 GMT 16:27 UK
Killing the story: a Tom Mangold investigation
Killing the story: a Tom Mangold investigation
A dead journalist, his headless corpse found in a shallow grave. A bodyguard on the run for his life with a price on his head. An embattled President secretly recorded and implicated in murder, international crime and corruption.

The Ukraine is in crisis - one that stretches far beyond its borders.

Georgy's cross
A simple cross marks a memorial to Georgy Gongadze

The journalist

The body of Ukrainian journalist Georgy Gongadze was found in remote woods, 100 miles from Kiev 19 months ago. He was the 13th reporter to die unnaturally in the Ukraine in 10 years. His murder has triggered a chain of events across the world.

Georgy Gongadze attacked what he saw as a crooked and corrupt administration.

They don't like that in the Ukraine.

So, unknown assassins struck. After murdering him, they removed identification and hid his mutilated torso in a shallow grave. It was clumsy, but final.

Georgy Gongadze
Gongadze was a vociferous opponent of Kuchma

After his murder, Gongadze's widow took their twins to the U.S. She had confirmed the body was Georgy's despite the attempt to obliterate his identity with decapitation and acid scarring.

Much worse was to follow with a new and damaging scandal.

Incriminating tapes

A year's worth of secret audio recordings surfaced. President Kuchma and his men had apparently been recorded talking about how to deal with Gongadze and his like. The inner chamber had been bugged.

The recordings revealed a vindictive Kuchma, wishing his enemies harm. The government dismissed the tapes as fakes or synthetic creations.

Major Nikolai Melnychenko
A Major exposure erupted

But, an officer in the presidential guard, Major Nikolai Melnychenko, claimed to have planted the bug himself in an attempt to expose an administration riddled with crime and corruption.

The scandal was now growing beyond the mere murder of a journalist, so Melnychenko went into hiding in America.

The mood on the streets in Ukraine became ugly with repeated calls for the president's impeachment. For the first time it looked as if Kuchma might not survive the battering.

Dangerous times

The Ukraine is one of the most dangerous countries in Europe in which to be a reporter.

Punishment beatings delivered by government-sanctioned heavies are a favourite form of persuasion.

Olexei Podolski, an opposition commentator, was yet another dissenter taken for a classic 'Ukrainian car ride'. He was followed and kidnapped, Gongadze style, but lived to tell the tale.

Oleg Yeltsov, another fellow journalist of Gongadze, had been checking links between state officials, powerful industrial oligarchs and the government.

Yeltsov investigated the SBU, Ukraine's feared Security Service. This became so life threatening that Yeltsov decided it was best to get out of town. But the SBU followed.

They seized his computer's hard disc, broke into his car but only documents were stolen. In the Ukraine, they call that the gypsy's warning.

President Kuchma
Kuchma denies all knowledge

The President

Kuchma is under intense international pressure to explain his role in the murder of Gongadze and the overall treatment of the press.

"I've personally never issued any orders to persecute any newspaper, any TV or radio channel, or any journalist. If it happened, and I repeat I was not involved, it would have been a mistake and part of the learning process".

"Melnychenko did not play any role, because I do not know him. I can't even remember what he looked like".

In hiding

The elusive Major Nikolai Melnychenko has gone to ground in the anonymous streets of New York with a huge price on his head. He speaks no English and sleeps in different places every few nights.

Ukraine Press Cards
Their press cards were no protection

"While I was working as a member of the President's security staff in Kiev, any ideals that I had were completely blown apart. I've learnt some facts that made me very disillusioned - facts that prove Kuchma's personal corrupt acts. I am a direct witness.

"I don't know all the details but the investigation in the States is connected with money laundering operations in the USA from drugs and arms dealing and the theft of Russian gas supplies".

The tapes also contain revelations about Alexandre Zhukov, a British citizen who was held earlier this year in connection with one of the biggest seizures of illegal arms ever made.

Iraq was mentioned in conversations at Kuchma's office. But that's as much as I'm prepared to say now

Nikolai Melnychenko

This included 13,000 tonnes of AK47 assault rifles, ammunition and explosives, guided missiles and grenades.

When questioned further about the secret recordings, Major Melnychenko said: "I have got information on Zhukov - a few conversations between him and Kuchma in the recordings, which show a very close relationship between them".

But, there are further allegations of arms dealing not involving Zhukov. One implies that the Ukraine government has illegally sent $100m worth of military radars to the Middle East.

Major Melnychenko continued: "Iraq was mentioned in conversations at Kuchma's office. But that's as much as I'm prepared to say now".

It's that Iraq connection that's particularly alarming.

If true, it would involve the Ukraine in serious breaches of international embargoes. We understand the allegations relate to conversations involving possible deals on missile parts from the Ukraine to Baghdad.

Killing the Story

Someone in Kiev who understands the full implications of these revelations travelled to Washington specifically to meet Melnychenko to buy him and his silence - $6m worth of silence.

The Foreign Ministry
Corruption is endemic behind the government's closed doors

But Melnychenko's fugitive life may be coming to an end. The FBI want to debrief him about the recordings in a safe house inside a U.S. military complex.

The ultimate irony is that the case of Gongadze's murder and the incriminating tapes may be heard and dealt with in the USA.

But, Kiev may still find it more convenient just to kill the story.

Click here for full programme transcript

Killing the Story: Sunday 21 April 2002 on BBC Two at 1845GMT

Reporter: Tom Mangold
Producer: Ewa Ewart
Series Producer: Simon Finch
Editor: Fiona Murch

Tom Mangold
The killing of Georgy Gongadze
Tom Mangold
Secret recordings of the Ukranian President - Leonid Kuchma
See also:

08 Mar 02 | Country profiles
04 Apr 02 | Europe
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