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Ukraine Opens Case Against Ex-President Over Journalist Murder

  • RFE/RL

Former President Leonid Kuchma (file photo)

Former President Leonid Kuchma (file photo)

Ukrainian ex-President Leonid Kuchma has denied involvement in the 2000 murder of opposition journalist Heorhiy Gongadze and said he is ready to go through "all the torments of hell" to prove his innocence.

Kuchma made the comment today ahead of questioning at the Prosecutor-General's Office in Kyiv over the Gongadze killing. Reuters quotes him as saying, "I honestly feel calm because I don't feel my guilt."

His appearance follows a surprise announcement March 22 that prosecutors had opened a criminal case against him in connection with the high-profile murder more than a decade ago.

The announcement revived hopes that the mystery still hanging over the brutal killing will finally be dispelled and the perpetrators brought to justice.

Prosecutors say Kuchma is suspected of "abusing power" and giving "unlawful orders" to Interior Ministry officials, which consequently led to the killing of the journalist.

Investigator are expected to complete their probe soon and Kuchma has been barred from leaving Ukraine.

Gongadze, whose online newspaper "Ukrayinska Pravda" was highly critical of Kuchma, was kidnapped in September 2000 in Kyiv. His beheaded, burned body was found a month and a half later in woodland outside the Ukrainian capital.

New Evidence

The 72-year-old Kuchma has always denied involvement in the murder, despite the release of tape recordings on which a voice resembling his is heard ordering officials to "deal with" the opposition journalist.

The deputy prosecutor-general said the tapes, whose authenticity has never been confirmed, were now recognized as valid evidence in the case.

Heorhiy Gongadze
The case against Kuchma is a victory for his opponents, who have been demanding for more than a decade that he face trial.

The media watchdog Reporters Without Borders also welcomed the probe. But Johann Bihr of the Paris-based group warned it was too soon to rejoice.

"We will be very interested to see whether other senior staff are also accused, because Kuchma is not the only one whose name has been mentioned in this case," Bihr said. "Several times the case went in the right direction and then went backward. We welcome this decision but we will follow it with great attention. Let's not celebrate right now because it's obviously not the end."

Long Overdue

Valentyna Telychenko, the lawyer for Gongadze's widow, Myroslava, voiced doubts the probe would shed new light on the murder.

She said Kuchma should have been investigated two years ago, after former police general Oleksiy Pukach was arrested and, according to authorities, confessed to strangling and beheading Gongadze.

"I don't have particularly positive feelings regarding the criminal case against Kuchma," Telychenko said. "It should have been opened right after the arrest of Pukach in July [2009], when he started naming Kuchma and other high officials. A lot of time has been lost."

Pukach is currently awaiting trial. Two other Interior Ministry officers have been jailed for their roles in slaying Gongadze.

Last year, prosecutors named former Interior Minister Yuriy Kravchenko as the person who ordered the killing.

Kravchenko was found dead in 2005 in his country house outside Kyiv and his death was officially ruled as suicide.

written by Claire Bigg based on RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service and agency reports