KIEV (Reuters) - Ukrainian former president Leonid Kuchma was formally charged on Thursday over the 2000 murder of opposition journalist Georgiy Gongadze and could face up to 12 years in jail if convicted.
The Ukraine general prosecutor’s office on Tuesday opened a criminal case against Kuchma, president of independent Ukraine from 1994 to 2005, on suspicion of involvement in the killing of Gongadze, one of his sharpest public critics.
The murder of the popular journalist, who was also well-known on TV talk shows, became emblematic of the sleaze and violence of post-Soviet Ukraine under Kuchma and led to street clashes in Kiev between protesters and riot police.
Emerging from questioning in the prosecutor’s office, Kuchma, 72, told reporters: “I have been charged. On Monday we will meet here again and we’ll see how things develop further.”
The general prosecutor’s spokesman, Yuri Boichenko, confirmed that Kuchma had been charged with abuse of office, leading to the death of the journalist, which carries a jail sentence of between 5-12 years.
Kuchma on Wednesday denied any role in the grisly murder of the 31-year-old campaigning editor. It turned into post-Soviet Ukraine’s most notorious crime case and was a turning point in Kuchma’s 10-year rule.
He repeated his denial on Thursday. “I categorically disagree with every charge, except the part which says that I am Leonid Danilovich Kuchma. This is beyond question.”
Gongadze, founding editor of the Internet newspaper Ukrainska Pravda, which was sharply critical of Kuchma’s rule, was abducted in September 2000 in the capital Kiev. His headless body was found one and a half months later in woods. He had been strangled and his body partly burned.
Outlining the case, the prosecutor’s office said on Tuesday Kuchma was suspected of having given illegal orders to senior interior ministry officials leading to Gongadze’s murder.”
Two police officers are already in jail for their part in the killing, while a third man, police general Oleksiy Pukach, is awaiting trial.
Last September, the state prosecutor named Yuri Kravchenko, interior minister at the time, as the person who had instigated and ordered Gongadze’s killing.
In 2005, Kravchenko was found dead at home from gunshot wounds which were officially said to be self-inflicted.
But Gongadze’s family and the political opposition still maintained that the murder was the subject of a cover-up to protect people in high places.
Despite the charges, some analysts doubt Kuchma’s case will go to trial and, with 10 years having passed since the murder, some suggested he could benefit from the statute of limitations.
“This is for the court to decide — invoke or not to invoke the statute of limitations,” Boichenko was quoted as saying by Interfax news agency.
The stage had been set for an intriguing face-to-face at the prosecutor’s office between Kuchma and one of his principal accusers — his former bodyguard, Mykola Melnychenko.
Melnychenko was behind the publication of secret tape recordings taken between 1998 and 2000, one of which appeared to indicate that Kuchma had told officials to “deal with” Gongadze. The authenticity of the tapes has never been confirmed.
Though Melnychenko turned up at the prosecutor’s office on Thursday, he later said that Kuchma’s health had precluded a face-to-face encounter in front of investigators.
Other details of the decade-long murder mystery appeared to be unfolding. Kuchma said police general Pukach, who was arrested last year after six years on the run, continued to insist that Kravchenko was behind the murder.
“Pukach, it seems, is operating according to the principle of ‘no person, no problem’. There’s no Kravchenko any more so he can dump the blame on him ... All he is saying is ‘Kravchenko, Kravchenko ...”, Kuchma told reporters.
The opening of the case against Kuchma, once a patron of President Viktor Yanukovich who was his prime minister for two years, has surprised many observers.
Critics of Yanukovich and the opposition have consistently accused him of covering up misdeeds of his political and business associates since he came to power in February 2010, while at the same time persecuting opposition rivals.
Former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko, Yanukovich’s fiercest rival, has said that she sees the whole affair as “bluff and window-dressing” aimed at projecting the impression that the Yanukovich leadership is abiding by the rule of law.
She said Kuchma’s prosecution would come to nothing.
Writing by Richard Balmforth; editing by Mark Heinrich