Ex-Ukraine president probed in reporter's death

AP News
Posted: Mar 22, 2011 1:21 PM
Ex-Ukraine president probed in reporter's death

Former Ukraine President Leonid Kuchma is to be questioned in a 10-year investigation into the brutal slaying of an investigative journalist renowned for exposing high-level corruption, say prosecutors.

Deputy Prosecutor General Renat Kuzmin said Tuesday that Kuchma is suspected of abusing his office powers by giving orders to Interior Ministry officials that "eventually led to the journalist's killing."

The ex-president has been banned from leaving Ukraine as part of the probe, he added.

The journalist, Heorhiy Gongadze _ well known for exposing high-level corruption _ was kidnapped in September 2000 at the age of 31. His headless body was later discovered outside the Ukraine capital, Kiev.

Gongadze's widow, Myroslava, and her two children fled to the United States in 2001 where they received political asylum.

Kuchma has long been accused by his opponents and rights groups of involvement in the slaying based on tape recordings in which a voice that sounds like his is heard complaining about the journalist and suggesting subordinates "deal" with the problem. The killing sparked months of protests against Kuchma and calls for his resignation.

Kuchma has denied the allegations. His office declined to comment on Tuesday's announcement.

The probe represents a new twist in the long-running investigation _ seen by many as a test of Ukraine's commitment to the rule of law.

Three former police officers were convicted of involvement in the killing and sentenced to lengthy prison terms in 2008. Another key suspect, a former top police officer, was arrested in 2009 after years in hiding and is now under investigation. But the masterminds have still to be brought to justice, and Gongadze's family are skeptical they ever will.

In the late 1990s, Gongadze hosted a controversial show on the Kiev-based Radio Kontynent, and his coverage of the 1999 presidential elections prompted Kuchma to say that the journalist was "blacklisted." Gongadze then co-founded a popular website that sharply criticized Kuchma and the circle of rich businessmen around him.

According to investigators, in September 2000 Gongadze got into what he thought was a taxi in Kiev. He was promptly joined by three other men and driven out of the capital. Several months later his was body was found. He had been beaten, strangled, and then his body doused with gasoline and burned. Experts said he was decapitated after his death.

Valentina Telychenko, a lawyer representing Gongadze's widow, is doubtful the case against Kuchma will bring any tangible results.

"It's too early to celebrate," Telychenko told The Associated Press, adding that the prosecutors may lack the political will to thoroughly investigate Kuchma's actions. She noted that the prosecutors opened the probe against Kuchma on charges of abuse of office and not murder.

"If the investigator believes Kuchma ordered the journalist's slaying, it should be investigated as murder," she said.

Opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko has called the investigation "bluff and show-off," saying President Viktor Yanukovych _ once Kuchma's protege _ is seeking to boost his own popularity by blessing the probe.