Former Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma says he is ready to go through "the torments of hell" to prove his innocence in the brutal murder of journalist Heorhiy Gongadze.
Kuchma made the remarks on March 23 outside the Prosecutor-General's Office in Kyiv, where he was summoned for questioning over the high-profile case.
"I want to see only the truth about what I did for the country and what I did not do to be written in Ukrainian history," he said.
This week, prosecutors announced that they had launched a criminal investigation against the 72-year-old former president, providing a surprise twist to the most politicized murder in Ukraine's post-Soviet history.
They said Kuchma was suspected of "abusing power" and giving "unlawful orders" to Interior Ministry officials, which consequently led to Gongadze's killing.Body Beheaded
Gongadze, a staunch critic 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.
Heorhiy Gongadze (file photo)
Opponents and rights groups have long demanded that Kuchma face trial on the basis of tape recordings on which a voice resembling his is heard ordering officials to "deal with" the journalist.
The tapes were part of secret recordings made from 1998 to 2000 by Mykola Melnychenko, who then worked as a security guard for Kuchma. The recordings' authenticity has not been confirmed, although prosecutors said they were now regarded as valid evidence.
Gongadze's widow, Myroslava, welcomed the new probe. She spoke in a message posted on the Internet.
"In my view this step shows that the Prosecutor-General's Office has sufficient evidence linking Kuchma to Heorhiy's murder," she said. "I hope the Prosecutor's Office will demonstrate professionalism and the will to complete this investigation."
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 a suicide.Two In Jail
Two Interior Ministry officers have been jailed for their roles in the killing. Oleksiy Pukach, a former police general who authorities claim confessed to killing Gongadze in 2009, is currently awaiting trial.
Gongadze's widow Miroslava
But a lawyer for Gongadze's widow warned that the investigation against Kuchma comes too late and was unlikely to shed new light on the murder.
Many analysts predict Kuchma's prosecution will come to nothing due to lack of evidence or possibly because the statute of limitations may have expired on some of the charges the ex-president could face.Ulterior Motives
The new investigation is actually viewed by some as an attempt by the government of President Viktor Yanukovych to clear Kuchma's name.
Oleksandr Zhyr, who used to chair a parliamentary commission investigating Gongadze's murder, says he believes the case against Kuchma is likely a "political game" intended to whitewash Kuchma once and for all and pin the blame for the murder on Kravchenko.
Others say the proceedings against Kuchma may herald legal trouble for some of Yanukovych's rivals, particularly the former prime minister, Yulia Tymoshenko.
Stanislav Rechinsky, a former spokesman for Ukraine's security services, says the Kuchma investigation is a clever move to demonstrate that we are all equal before the law. "If a criminal case is opened against Kuchma, then it's perfectly all right to jail Tymoshenko," he says.
Mykola Melnychenko, a former bodyguard to Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma
Another figure who stands to lose is Volodymyr Lytvyn, a former aide to Kuchma and now the speaker of Ukraine's parliament. The bodyguard who made the secret tapes, Melnychenko, claims the second voice on the incriminating recording belongs to Lytvyn.
The case took a further twist when Melnychenko appeared at the Prosecutor-General's Office saying he intended to confront Kuchma face-to-face. He told reporters after the hearing that the former president "ran away like a shameful wolf."written by Claire Bigg, with reporting from RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service and agency reports