Ex-Ukraine leader denies role in reporter's death

AP News
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Posted: Mar 23, 2011 9:18 AM
Ex-Ukraine leader denies role in reporter's death

Former Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma on Wednesday denied involvement in the brutal decade-old slaying of an investigative reporter.

Kuchma appeared at the prosecutor's office for questioning Wednesday and vowed to prove his innocence in the 2000 killing of Heorhiy Gongadze who was kidnapped, beaten, strangled and decapitated.

Prosecutors say Kuchma is suspected of giving illegal orders to his subordinates that led to the journalist's death. Opponents and rights groups have accused Kuchma of involvement in the slaying based on tape recordings in which a voice that sounded like Kuchma's is heard complaining about the journalist and suggesting subordinates "deal" with the problem. Prosecutors have declared those tapes authentic.

"I am calm, I say that honestly: I am calm because I don't feel my guilt." Kuchma, 72, told reporters outside the Prosecutor General's Office. "Today, I am morally ready go through all the circles of hell in order to prove that I am innocent."

The criminal proceedings against Kuchma, who served as Ukraine's president from 1994-2005 represent an unexpected twist in a 10-year probe, which Gongadze's family has complained was not being carried out thoroughly. Kuchma has been questioned in the case in the past, but not as a suspect.

Three former police officers were convicted of involvement in Gongadze's killing and sentenced to lengthy prison terms in 2008. Another key suspect, arrested after years in hiding, is awaiting trial. Prosecutors have concluded the murder was ordered by former Interior Minister Yuri Kravchenko, who was shot dead in 2005 in what authorities ruled to be a suicide.

The killing of Gongadze, who crusaded against official corruption, triggered months of protests against the president, movement dubbed "Ukraine without Kuchma." Those protests were seen as a precursor to the 2004 Orange Revolution, which launched democracy in Ukraine and overthrew the fraud-marred victory of Kuchma's protege Viktor Yanukovych.

But Yanukovych returned to power after winning presidential elections last year and some said the case against Kuchma was Yanukovych's attempt to boost his own popularity by portraying himself as a leader committed to the rule of law.

Many were unconvinced the case would be solved. A representative for Gongadze's family said Kuchma should be investigated for murder, not abuse of office. Opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko called the investigation "bluff and show-off" by Yanukovych.