Going Silent On Human Rights

One of the bad things about the Obama administration is that human rights have taken a backseat to more pressing concerns abroad. A case in point was Joseph Biden’s recent trip to Ukraine. Here’s a country whose human rights record is appalling by European standards, but you wouldn’t know it by glimpsing at Biden’s prepared remarks (much less his unprepared remarks about the country’s beautiful women).

In a moving speech in Kiev, Biden quoted his mother and the Ukrainian poet Shevchenko, but a better name to drop would have been that of Georgiy Gongadze. Nine years ago, the muckraking journalist was found decapitated by the side of the road, yet the perpetrators of this heinous crime are still at large. His head remains buried somewhere, and his name hangs over this country’s government like the ghost of Banquo. Outrage over his murder is partly what laid the foundations for the grassroots movement behind the 2004 Orange Revolution.

The Council of Europe has launched an investigation into the murder but has left it to the Ukrainian authorities to do most of the investigating. Fingers point to the interior ministry of the previous administration of Leonid Kuchma, who was caught on tape supposedly ordering the murder. Among those in the room was former interior minister Yuri Kravchenko, who on the day in 2005 that he was supposed to deliver testimony to prosecutors was found dead from two gunshot wounds to the head (it was dubiously ruled a suicide). Another key suspect who went AWOL for six years, Oleksi Pukach, was just rearrested, but it seems doubtful he will finger the culprit. Indeed, the sad lack of progress made on the Gongadze case is a sign of Ukraine’s backslide away from the democratic principles of the Orange Revolution.

There is some evidence to suggest that the current government of Victor Yushchenko is deliberately blackballing the investigation (How long does it really take to verify the voices on tapes? We seem to do it overnight when the voice is Osama bin Laden’s or Richard Nixon’s). Rumors swirl that he may have given Kuchma an immunity deal after the Orange Revolution. Yushchenko even awarded a medal of honor to the former general prosecutor who sabotaged the investigation at the outset.

Human rights workers say the current government (which in fairness has its hands full just trying to stay together) lacks the political will to see the case forward. “There’s been no movement whatsoever,” says Nina Ognianova of the Committee to Protect Journalists. The investigation so far is mere “window dressing,” says Heather McGill, a researcher for Amnesty International. “Clearly there are high-placed people in Ukraine who have an interest in not seeing it followed through.”

I also spoke to Gongadze’s wife, Miraslava, who now works as a journalist for Voice of America. She is discouraged by “the lack of professionalism” of Ukraine's prosecutor’s office. “They’re just trying to use it as a political tool in their political game,” she told me. “If they want to push someone out of office or put someone in office, they could use the case against those people.” It is about more than just finding out who killed her husband. “This case runs like a thin line through our society. A major problem with Ukrainian human rights is that there are few cases of charges against corrupt officials or abuse by the police and prosecutors office … People don’t have a chance to fight for their rights. That’s why I’m pursuing my case. I want to show people it’s possible to prosecute people in the police force and government and to defend your rights."

Biden spoke at length about cutting Ukraine’s budget, phasing out its energy subsidies and averting another gas crisis. Yet he said nothing about bringing Gongadze’s murderers to justice, a hear-no-evil-see-no-evil trait we’ve seen before from this administration. “There are things the U.S. could do but talks on privatization and pulling Ukraine away from Russia overtake all these other things,” Simon Pirani, a British academic who helped draft a number of the investigative reports on the case, told me. The U.S. State Department is one of the few places with the expertise and technical facilities to analyze the tapes.

Here’s a thought: Why not hitch the $140 million aid package we’re set to hand Kiev, not to mention the pending $16 billion IMF loan, on whether or not it can successfully prosecute the perpetrators of this case? So long as this mystery goes unsolved, Ukraine will remain a tainted democracy undeserving of American support or European inclusion.

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