Supporters of Ukrainian nationalist politician killed in 1999 car crash call for case to be reopened

By On a March night six years ago Friday, a car carrying charismatic Ukrainian nationalist politician Vyacheslav Chornovil slammed into the side of a truck, instantly killing the opposition leader in what authorities called an unfortunate accident. Most Ukrainians suspected it was anything but.

Doubts grew when the government refused to investigate any other possibility and quickly granted amnesty to the truck driver, dashing the opposition's hopes for an open trial. A video-recorded confession of alleged police involvement surfaced but then was mysteriously misplaced.

Now pressure is building on President Viktor Yushchenko to order a new investigation into Chornovil's 1999 death, a case that like the 2000 abduction and beheading of opposition journalist Heorhiy Gongadze could lead to the very top of Ukraine's former government.

"The previous regime left numerous scars," said Foreign Minister Borys Tarasiuk. "The death of Vyacheslav Chornovil is one of the most painful wounds. We won't keep silent."

Former President Leonid Kuchma's government had long dismissed allegations that Chornovil's death was a political killing, aimed at removing a potential presidential contender on the eve of the 1999 presidential campaign. Kuchma, who earlier this month faced prosecutors' questioning in the Gongadze case, could not be reached for comment.

But Chornovil's colleagues and his son, Taras, insist they have computer mock-ups of the accident, expert testimony and enough discrepancies in the crash report to suggest foul play. Taras Chornovil also noted that staging car accidents "is an old Soviet method."

"The security services are conservative," he said. "If something works they stick with it." At least five high-profile Ukrainians have died in car crashes in the last decade.

Mykola Stepanenko, head of a commission set up by Rukh, Chornovil's party, to investigate the death, said there is an abundance of evidence indicating the crash was orchestrated.

"We have been collecting material on (Chornovil's) death for six years, and our party investigation, which never stopped, found a dozen and a half confirmations of the fact that it was not just a road accident," said Stepanenko.

Tarasiuk personally appealed not only to the president but also his Cabinet colleagues, Interior Minister Yuriy Lutsenko and Prosecutor General Svyatoslav Piskun, to reopen the long dormant case. Taras Chornovil met with his old opposition ally, Oleksandr Turchinov, to ask that his agency, the State Security Service, get involved.

Marina Ostapenko, spokeswoman for the security service, said the request was under consideration.

The crash occurred late on the night of March 25, 1999, as Chornovil was returning to Kiev from a campaign trip. The ex-Soviet dissident was being coy about his intentions to run in the presidential race, but his son said, "realistically everyone knew that he would."

It remains an open question how much of a threat Chornovil would have posed: Rukh had fractured and Chornovil lacked financial support. But he had proven earlier that he could win more than 20 percent of the vote, a potential obstacle to Kuchma's goal of facing Communist Party candidate Petro Symonenko in the run-off - a showdown lawmakers said Kuchma was sure to win because of residual fear over electing a Communist.

As the car carrying Chornovil sped down the Boryspil-Zolotonosha highway outside of Kiev, a heavy Kamaz truck carrying grain seed apparently missed its turnoff and began making a slow U-turn across the dimly lit road. Chornovil's car barreled into the side of the truck; the top of the car was sheared off, killing the politician and his driver. A third passenger survived.

Almost immediately, then-Interior Minister Yuriy Kravchenko called it an accident and dismissed suggestions of foul play. Kravchenko was found dead from an apparent suicide earlier this month, on the day he was supposed to testify before prosecutors about the Gongadze case.

The truck driver was granted an amnesty - before even being convicted of anything, Taras Chornovil said. Then, in 1999, a videotaped confession made by an unidentified special forces colonel was found by powerful Ukrainian politician, Yevhan Marchuk, Stepanenko said. In the video, the colonel allegedly "tells how the murder was planned, organized and performed," Stepanenko said.

Then the video disappeared, and Marchuk was named to head the State Security Service under Kuchma, Taras Chornovil said. Marchuk could not be reached for comment, but at the time, he defended his inattention to the video, saying it was clearly a fake.

Just this month, someone allegedly broke into Stepanenko's car and stole a briefcase containing materials related to the case. The papers were mostly just copies, but lawmaker Heorhiy Manchulenko believes the message was clear.

"The goal wasn't to steal something, but to apply pressure, psychological pressure on those attempting to investigate Vyacheslav Chornovil's death," he said.

Tarasiuk acknowledged that Chornovil's case hasn't captured global attention like Gongadze's death did. However, Chornovil's portrait still hangs reverently on bus dashboards and in homes in western Ukraine - one of Yushchenko's main support bases.

"We will do our best so that the case is not forgotten," Tarasiuk said.

MARA D. BELLABY Associated Press

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