Ukraine ex-president suspected in journalist murder

AFP , Tuesday 22 Mar 2011

Ukraine's former president is to be investigated for being implicated in the killing of a journalist in an event considered the most notorious in post-Soviet history

Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma gestures as he answers media questions at a news conference at the presidential press centre in Kiev in this 28 April 2004 file photo. (Reuters)

Ukraine on Tuesday opened a murder probe against ex-president Leonid Kuchma over the killing of journalist Georgy Gongadze, a decade after the most notorious crime in its post-Soviet history.

The announcement by Ukrainian prosecutors came after a decade of pressure from Kuchma's opponents for the former president to face trial over the brutal killing in 2000 of the opposition journalist.

"A criminal case has been opened against Leonid Kuchma. He is suspected of implication in the murder of Georgy Gongadze," deputy prosecutor general Renat Kuzmin told reporters.

He added that Kuchma, president from 1994-2005, was now banned from leaving Ukraine amid the criminal investigation.

Kuzmin said that "Kuchma is now suspected of abuse of power and giving illegal orders to interior ministry employees that led to the death of the journalist."

The anti-Kuchma opposition at the time implicated the ex-president in the crime, pointing to tapes unearthed in 2000 where voices alleged to be of Kuchma and ex-interior minister Yury Kravchenko evoked eliminating Gongadze.

The tapes -- allegedly recorded in Kuchma's office by one of his bodyguards Mykola Melnichenko -- contain a voice resembling that of Kuchma suggesting to have Gongadze "kidnapped by Chechens".

Kuzmin said that the tapes were now recognised as valid evidence in the case.

Kuchma has always denied any involvement and the authenticity of the tapes was until now never confirmed.

Gongadze was kidnapped in September 2000 after leaving a friend's apartment in Kiev.

The authorities are holding in detention former Ukrainian interior ministry official Olexy Pukach, who was arrested in 2009 and confessed to personally strangling the journalist with his belt, then beheading him with an axe.

In September 2010 prosecutors appeared to draw a line under the case by saying that Kravchenko -- who committed suicide in 2005 -- ordered the murder.

Kuchma was Ukraine's second post-independence president from 1994-2005 and was credited with treading a wily path between Russia and the West although he grew to be a hate figure for the liberal opposition.

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