The case of Alexey Goncharov – beaten to death for protecting a Kyiv island reserve

UKRAINE/2009
Zhukov island in Kyiv
© Wikipedia Commons

Back in 2009, Alexey Goncharov, a volunteer of the Kyiv Ecological and Cultural Centre, lived with his wife and two children on Zhukov Island, a peaceful natural reserve on the outskirts of Kyiv, a place that is, among other things, a breeding ground for rare white-tailed eagles and a part of the Dnipro River corridor that migratory birds use. On May 26, 2009, Alexey Goncharov was killed outside his home by two unidentified assailants, in front of his wife and young child.

Despite a ban on development and other business activities, trucks full of timber and sand regularly exited the island as a result of illegal mining activities.  As the miners were coming closer and closer to the Goncharovs’ house, he called the police eight consecutive times to the site where the sand-mining equipment was working. Each time the police initially detained the workers and then released them. Goncharov also filed several appeals with law enforcement authorities, but they were unresponsive and protective of the illegal business, which apparently generated substantial profits for those involved.

From bribery to murder

Deliberate destruction or causing damage to nature reserves is a crime in Ukraine. Yet, since the early 2000s, more than a dozen commercial firms had been illegally mining sand on Zhukov Island, and Goncharov had been trying to stop them. Since all his appeals to the government had failed, he turned to the mass media to finally make a difference. The illegal operators first attempted to bribe Goncharov, then they threatened him, and then they hired two hitmen to beat him to death. This happened on the day after Goncharov had brought a team from the ICTV television channel to the site of the illegal sand mining in the reserve’s protected area. The men also beat up his wife, who then had to be hospitalized with severe injuries. The widow and her two children later left Ukraine for the Czech Republic, fearing for their lives and not trusting the Ukrainian authorities to protect them.

Investigation leads to two businessmen

At the beginning of the investigation, the police were working with three possibilities – murder over debt, a conflict with fishermen, or that the murder was connected with Goncharov’s attempts to obstruct the illegal extraction of sand. They say that an attempt was made to present the killing as the result of a conflict with fishermen. Despite this, the police quite soon concluded that the last version was correct.  An official investigation into the incident established that two businessmen, Nonik and Gonchar, were implicated in Goncharov’s death. According to journalists, Nonik, who had initiated the illegal sand mining operation on the island and repeatedly threatened Goncharov in person, was the key mastermind behind the environmentalist’s murder. Police Major Laguta, Nonik’s relative, was covering up the illegal business. The two hitmen were never found. The police officers implicated in the case were not punished, but only transferred to other positions.

It took the murder for the authorities to shut down the illegal activities

It was only after Goncharov’s death that the Ministry of Internal Affairs began actively combating the illegal extraction of sand, minerals, etc. from the Dnipro River. In June 2009 the Ministry issued an instruction on operational and preventive measures for protecting river areas around Kyiv. Another department under the Ministry has carried out checks as to whether activities involving the deposition and removal of sand in the river areas by commercial bodies are legal.

As a result of this, criminal investigations have been initiated under Articles 197 § 2 and 240 of the Criminal Code against the companies “Gepard” and “Alliance”.

It looks as though the terrible murder of Alexey Goncharov has finally made the authorities begin fighting the devastation of these natural resources.

From information provided in the report Dangerous work: Increasing pressure on environmental NGOs and activists in the countries of the former Soviet Union and the U.S prepared by Crude Accountability – Ecoforum of NGOs Kazakhstan/ 2017


Further reading

ENG 04/06/2009 Environmentalists in no doubt as to why O. Goncharov was murdered (Human rights in Ukraine)

ENG 09/07/2009 It took an environmentalist’s murder to make the authorities move (Human Rights in Ukraine)

ENG 08/06/2009 Police detain suspect over the murder of Oleksandr Goncharov (Human Rights in Ukraine)

RUS 29/07/2009 Where is the Zhukov Island murder investigation going? (Kyiv Ecological and Cultural Centre)

RUS 31/05/2010 Press conference on the anniversary of the death of Kiev ecologist Alexander Goncharov (Kyiv Ecological and Cultural Centre)