KIEV, Mar 22 – Ukraine opened a murder case against ex-president Leonid Kuchma over the 2000 killing of journalist Georgy Gongadze, the most notorious crime in its post-Soviet history, officials said on Tuesday.
The announcement by prosecutors came after years of pressure from Kuchma\’s opponents for the former president to face trial over the brutal killing of the critical journalist and founder of the Ukrainska Pravda newssite.
"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. "The corresponding order has been passed to the border services," he said.
Pressed repeatedly by reporters, Kuzmin stopped short of saying Kuchma was suspected of personally masterminding the murder.
But he 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".
The tapes caused a sensation after they were made public by Socialist Party leader Olexander Moroz in 2000 and sparked mass demonstrations in the country calling for Kuchma\’s resignation.
In a major development, 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 has never been confirmed.
Gongadze was kidnapped in September 2000 after leaving a friend\’s apartment in Kiev.
The authorities are holding in custody 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.
Given that Kravchenko took his evidence to the grave, the move prompted accusations from Gongadze\’s family that the authorities were seeking to pin all the blame on a dead man to protect someone of greater importance.
Reports overnight that the prosecutors had opened the probe took commentators by surprise, with some suspecting the idea was to hold a probe that would ultimately whitewash Kuchma and end years of accusations.
Kuchma was president during the 2004 Orange Revolution uprising that forced the annulment of rigged presidential elections and a re-run which was won by liberal pro-Western candidate Viktor Yushchenko.
He tried to remain neutral during those convulsions although liberals suspected him of siding with the losing pro-Kremlin candidate Viktor Yanukovych.
Yanukovych defeated the Orange Revolution leaders in 2010 presidential elections and the authorities have since opened criminal probes against some of his pro-Western opponents, including former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko.
Kuchma was Ukraine\’s second post-independence president and was credited with treading a wily path between Russia and the West, in a policy of neutrality which analysts believe Yanukovych is now copying.
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