Monday, December 13, 2004

The Strange Case of Dr. Wicke or Questions Surrounding the Alleged Poisoning of Viktor Yushchenko (with Update)

Since Saturday’s announcement by Dr. Michael Zimpfer of Vienna’s Rudolfinerhaus clinic that Ukrainian presidential candidate Viktor Yushchenko had been poisoned with dioxin, the alleged dioxin-poisoning of Yushchenko seems set to become established fact as far as the traditional, mainstream English-language media are concerned. The December 11 AP story on the matter is titled “Doctor: Yushchenko Poisoned With Dioxin”, thus at least still indicating that what is at issue is an allegation from a single source. By contrast, the title of the NYTimes story of December 12 eschews such niceties in order to declare point blank: “Liberal Leader From Ukraine Was Poisoned”. By “liberal leader from Ukraine” is meant, of course, Viktor Yushchenko, though, as has been repeatedly pointed out here, there is reason to doubt that Yushchenko is in fact particularly “liberal”. The two stories refer respectively to Dr. Zimpfer as the “director” and the “head” of the Rudolfinerhaus clinic. Neither mentions that his title is in fact President of the clinic’s Supervisory Board [Aufsichtsrat] - an administrative body - and that the actual medical director of the clinic, Dr. Lothar Wicke, resigned from his post on December 9: i.e., one day before Viktor Yushchenko was set to return to Vienna for the latest round of tests to determine the origins of his mysterious illness. This was in fact Yushchenko’s third visit to the clinic since early September when the symptoms of his illness first appeared. Neither the AP nor the Times piece mentioned either that in the meanwhile Dr. Wicke had dismissed the allegation of poisoning as scientifically unfounded and made known, moreover, that he had been threatened by Yushchenko’s entourage with unspecified "means" or "measures" should he persist in denying the charge.

An article published in Sunday’s edition of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ) [link in German] – a paper which, as Trans-Int’s German readers will be able to confirm, cannot be suspected of harboring tender feelings for the Kremlin – enters into some of the details of what it calls the “strange goings-on” at the Rudolfinerhaus clinic since Viktor Yushchenko first checked in on September 9. Citing investigations conducted by the journalist Emil Bobi of the Austrian magazine Profil, it notes, for instance, that the allegation of poisoning originated with one Nikolai Korpan, a Ukrainian-born surgeon who had joined the team treating Yushchenko during his first visit to the clinic in early September. Before, however, Yushchenko returned for a second visit on September 30, Dr. Wicke held a press conference in which he accused persons not on the Rudolfinerhaus staff – “the reference was to Korpan,” according to the FAZ – of disseminating “medically falsified [verfälschte] diagnoses concerning the condition of Mr. Yushchenko” and indicated that no signs of poisoning had in fact been found. The FAZ article continues:

Thereafter Yushchenko’s people made clear to Wicke that he should not say anything more concerning the affair, since otherwise [Wicke is here again being quoted] “one would resort to other means against me and the hospital”. Dr. Wicke is also supposed to have received death threats at the time.

These threats were taken sufficiently seriously by the Viennese police that, as the FAZ notes, an armed guard was assigned to Dr. Wicke. Furthermore, according to the FAZ, four days after the cited press conference, Zimpfer submitted a request to Wicke asking him to retract his statement to the effect that there were no indications of poisoning. On October 3, Wicke is supposed to have filed a memorandum noting that Zimpfer had said that if the statement was not retracted, “Dr. Yushchenko’s people will not be happy and will take other measures.” Later that month, acting on a request by a Ukrainian parliamentary committee investigating the poisoning allegations, Viennese criminal investigators were dispatched to the Rudolfinerhaus clinic to seize Yushchenko’s medical files, whereupon, according to Emil Bobi, they “practically came to blows with Yushchenko’s entourage.”

An article published last Friday (10 December) in the French daily Le Figaro also broaches details of Yushchenko’s “mysterious hospitalization” in Vienna and provides a taste of the atmosphere of intimidation which has reigned at the Rudolfinerhaus. It invokes, for instance, the outbreak of scuffles at a October 1st news conference on the Yushchenko case and a "strange security force with slavic accents" that on the same occasion is said to have harassed foreign journalists. The Figaro piece cites Dr. Wicke to the effect that Yushchenko personally accused him of “perhaps having made me lose the presidential election”, as well as excusing himself for a momentary reluctance to insist on his scientific opinion: "I have a child, you understand."

Codeblueblog has today posted “Ten Reasons Why This Weekend’s Yushchenko Diagnosis is a Fraud” (Hat tip Instapundit). Some of these reasons are of a specialized medical nature and have provoked debate between Dr. Boyle of CBB and medical colleagues. Others, however, are simple matters of logic and plausibility. Hospital authorities claim, for instance, that a new procedure has only just been developed that now allowed them finally to make the diagnosis that has eluded them for the previous three months. What, after all, is the likelihood of that just two weeks before the re-run of the Ukrainian elections? The questions raised by CBB combined with revelations in the European press on the odd circumstances surrounding the Korpan/Zimpfer “diagnosis” - which, like the very existence of Dr. Wicke, have been largely ignored by the accounts in the English-language press – give ample cause to pause regarding the alleged poisoning of Viktor Yushchenko.

(Many thanks to H-R for putting me on to the FAZ article!)

Update: Dr. Lothar Wicke has been almost entirely effaced from the accounts in the mainstream English-language media of Viktor Yushchenko's hospitalizations at the Rudolfinerhaus clinic in Vienna. He is mentioned in passing in an AP report dated 25 November (reproduced here on, which notes that Dr. Wicke "requested police protection after receiving an anonymous threat while treating Yushchenko". He is also mentioned in another AP report dated 8 December (reproduced here in USA Today), which notes: "One of the chief doctors treating Yushchenko, Lothar Wicke, was been placed under police protection after receiving an anonymous threat." "No details about the threat have been released," the AP report continues. I am not sure whom the AP was expecting to "release" the details in question. Emil Bobi's investigative article on the case in Profil was published on 11 October. Given the general tenor of the two AP articles and the ominous context of poisoning accusations against the Ukrainian authorities, readers of these laconic remarks will be tempted to assume that the threats against Wicke must originate from the same sources as are alleged to have attempted to off Yushchenko. They would never know that they are, on the contrary, supposed to have come precisely from the Yushchenko camp itself - as they might, nonetheless, have speculated if the AP had bothered to inform its readers that Dr. Wicke has rejected the poisoning accusation. As I have often been led to wonder in treating mainstream American media on this site: is this a matter of willful disinformation - sticking to the preferred script with the roles of "good guys" and "bad guys" neatly distributed in advance - or of simple incompetence? Why couldn't the AP correspondent read Emil Bobi's article as the FAZ author did? Perhaps because he or she does not read German? But why would someone without the requisite linguistic competence be sent to cover a story at a Viennese clinic? Either way - whether disinformation or misinformation - it is further proof that the American public is very poorly served by its established news media.