Eleven years after a Ukrainian investigative journalist was abducted and killed, his widow finally has faint hope that the masterminds of the murder will be brought to justice.
Former President Leonid Kuchma is slated to go on trial on charges of abuse of office in connection with the killing of Heorhiy Gongadze in the coming months. Prosecutors contend Kuchma gave illegal orders to his subordinates that eventually led to Gongadze's death.
"I believe that Kuchma is to blame for Gia's death," Gongadze's 39-year-old widow Myroslava said, using Heorhiy's nickname. "Kuchma ... and the machine for settling scores with political opponents and journalists."
She spoke late Thursday by telephone from Washington, where she and her two daughters have been given political asylum. Kuchma denies the allegations and says key evidence _ tape recordings in which he allegedly conspires against the journalist _ was doctored.
On Sept. 16, 2000, Heorhiy Gongadze got into what he thought was a taxi, and was then joined by three others and driven outside Kiev. He was beaten and strangled, his body doused with gasoline and burned. Gongadze's beheaded body was discovered in a forest outside Kiev several months later. Experts believe Gongadze was decapitated after his death.
Journalists, activists and friends will hold a rally in Kiev in Gongadze's memory later Friday.
The killing of Gongadze, who crusaded against official corruption, triggered months of protests against the president, a movement dubbed "Ukraine without Kuchma." Those protests were seen as a precursor to the 2004 Orange Revolution, which overthrew the fraud-tainted victory of Kuchma's protege Viktor Yanukovych.
But Yanukovych returned to power after winning presidential elections last year and many observers were surprised when Kuchma, his former mentor, was charged under Yanukovych's watch. Some say the case against Kuchma is Yanukovych's attempt to boost his own popularity by portraying himself as a leader committed to the rule of law.
Gongadze, who was 31 when he was killed, was a harsh critic of Kuchma's rule who founded an online newspaper that exposed corruption by senior government officials.
Three former police officers were convicted of involvement in Gongadze's killing and sentenced to lengthy prison terms in 2008, and another top law enforcement officer, former Interior Ministry general Olexiy Pukach, is currently on trial. Pukach has confessed to killing Gongadze.
During his closed-door trial, Pukach claimed that he killed Gongadze at the behest of Kuchma and other senior government officials. Kuchma's lawyers dismissed the accusations as an attempt by Pukach, who faces life in prison, to deflect blame from himself.
Gongadze's widow moved to the U.S. several months after his death with their twin daughters Nana and Salome, now 13, after she discovered that her phone was being tapped and she was under constant surveillance. Gongadze, also a journalist, continued her career in the U.S. working for Voice of America's Ukrainian service.
Myroslava Gongadze said it makes no difference to her whether Kuchma explicitly ordered her husband's murder, or merely wanted to scare him.
"Gia is dead, my children have been deprived of a father, me of a husband and friend, and society of a good journalist," she said.
For that, Kuchma must be punished, she insisted.
"If Ukraine calls itself a democratic country, this must happen," she said.