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Ukraine: Five Years And One Revolution Later, Gongadze Case Goes To Court

Myroslava Gongadze speaking to reporters before the opening of the first day of hearings today. (ITAR-TASS) The trial of three former Interior Ministry officers for their alleged roles in the 2000 killing of journalist Heorhiy Gongadze opened briefly in a packed courtroom --> in the Ukrainian capital today before the presiding judge adjourned the proceedings until 23 January. Relatives of the slain journalist and their lawyers said they were "surprised" by Kyiv Appeals Court Judge Iryna Grygoryeva's decision to adjourn the trial for so long -- a move she announced after one of the defendants, former Interior Ministry officer Mykola Protasov, reportedly felt faint in the courtroom.

Kyiv, 9 January 2006 (RFE/RL) -- Reports from Kyiv say dozens of relatives, lawyers, and prosecutors were packing the tiny courtroom, which was too small to hold the crowd of reporters covering the event.

Journalists tried to force their way into the room during the recess, arguing that the hearings were open to the public and that all media should be allowed to attend the trial. But guards drove them back.

Trial 'Not Enough'

Among those who attended the trial was Gongadze's widow, Myroslava, who arrived on 8 January from the United States.

Addressing reporters outside the courtroom, she said those truly responsible for her husband's killing have not yet been arrested.

"I don't think this [trial] is enough, because these [three] people [defendants Valeriy Kostenko, Protasov, and Oleksandr Popovych] had no personal motives for killing Heorhiy," Gongadze said. "They were carrying out a criminal order. They had the option of not carrying it out. They could have saved their honor and they could have refused to follow the order, but they killed Heorhiy and they must be punished. The next step will be when the organizers of this crime are brought to justice. Their identities are known and they must be punished along with the people sitting in the dock today."

Gongadze wrote about high-level corruption, and many suspect former President Leonid Kuchma and other top officials of orchestrating his murder.

In comments made later to RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service, Myroslava Gongadze accused former Interior Ministry Oleksiy Pukach of being one of the main organizers behind her husband's killing.

"Pukach directly issued orders," she said. "Pukach took a direct part in this assassination. So far, nothing has been said [in court] about those who ordered the killing, and we intend to invite many witnesses who will be able to shed a lot of light on this case, even in this court session."

Pukach is wanted in Ukraine, but remains at large. His whereabouts are unknown.

Denials From The Top

Many in Ukraine suspect former President Leonid Kuchma and other top state officials of orchestrating the murder of Gongadze, who wrote about high-level corruption. Kuchma denies the accusations.

Current President Viktor Yushchenko, who took over from Kuchma following the 2004-2005 Orange Revolution, has publicly vowed to resolve the Gongadze case, calling it a priority.

Gongadze's mother Lesya has refused to the attend today's court hearings, saying she no longer has faith in the Ukrainian justice system.

In comments made on 8 January, she said she was disappointed with a 19 December preliminary hearing at which the judge reportedly turned down her request for an additional probe to help find those responsible for organizing the killing.

Addressing reporters before today’s session opened, however, Lesya Gongadze’s lawyer, Andriy Fedur, said he attached great importance to the hearings.

"For me, it will be very important to see what kind of statements will be made and what kind of questions will be asked, whether the trial will be the same as it was on the 19th, when the prosecutor acted as the main defender of the accused, or whether it will finally consider the real subject," Fedur said. "So, for me personally, this will be a key court hearing."

The 31-year-old Gongadze was abducted in 2000. His beheaded body was discovered in a forest near Kyiv.

Gongadze's murder is believed to have played a key role in eroding public support for Kuchma and his government.

(Ukrainian Svc/Ukrayinska pravda/

The Gongadze Case

The Gongadze Case

Heorhiy Gongadze was neither the first nor the last journalist to be killed in Ukraine, but it is his death that has become synonymous with the pressure exerted on journalists by the administration of former President Leonid Kuchma. Within weeks of his death, secretly recorded tapes emerged that implicated Kuchma in Gongadze's death. Kuchma has always denied any involvement, but the twists and turns of the protracted investigation -- and its failure to produce results -- merely fueled the speculation. The demonstrations triggered by Gongadze's death galvanized opposition to the Kuchma administration.

President Viktor Yushchenko, prime minister at the time of Gongadze's death and leader of the Orange Revolution, has said that resolving the Gongadze case is a "matter of honor." The journalist's alleged killers are now on trial in Kyiv. But a trail of deaths, including one since the Orange Revolution, raise doubts about whether it will ever be certain who ordered Gongadze's murder.

For a timeline of the Gongadze case, click here.