Justice in Georgiy Gongadze case: Ukrainian police official sentenced to life for journalist’s murder

Former police general Oleksiy Pukach after being convicted on January 29 of the murder of journalist Georgiy Gongadze in 2000. | AFP
Friday, February 1, 2013

It is not often that we receive encouraging news on the global impunity front. This Tuesday, however, marked an important victory in the global battle for justice when Ukrainian authorities sentenced to life former police general Oleksiy Pukach for the murder of journalist and press freedom hero Georgiy Gongadze.

In the context of impunity – the widespread failure to bring perpetrators of human rights violations to justice – Gongadze’s story loomed large. As a veteran Ukrainian radio journalist, Gongadze attracted hostility and intimidation from state officials for his critical editorial voice. Following the launch of his independent news website and press freedom initiative Ukrayinska Pravda (Ukrainian Truth) in 2000, Gongadze disappeared, and his decapitated body was found months later doused in flammable chemicals. The criminal investigation was fraught with delays and dismissed charges, and until this week, none of the architects behind the murder had been convicted.

The sentencing of high-ranking police official Pukach is significant not only because prison terms are seldom decreed in these cases, but also because in many investigations, charges are made only against criminal subordinates or “triggermen” and rarely the top agents behind assassination plots.

While convicting Pukach, who alleges he was acting on the orders of interior ministers, indicates a necessary push against impunity by the Ukrainain government, it should be noted that justice was a long time coming in this case. This is the first conviction in the investigation since Gongadze’s murder over 12 years ago, and it is clear that several additional perpetrators have yet to be sentenced.

CJFE condemns the targeting of journalists or activists who exercise their right to free speech, and we are encouraged by this positive development in the international movement against unpunished attacks on free expression. This year, CJFE honoured the global campaign against impunity by taking IFEX’s 23 Actions in 23 Days, and by hosting a screening of A Bitter Taste of Freedom, a 2011 documentary film about the life, career and unsolved murder of iconic Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya.

CJFE monitors and protests cases where the right to free expression has been violated or threatened, and hails the sentencing of Pukach as a rare victory and one that should serve as an example for other countries in which the culture of impunity persists.