The killer of outspoken opposition journalist and arguably the father of the Orange Revolution, Georgiy Gongadze, was sentenced to life in prison on January 29 by a court in Kyiv well over a decade after the murder. Yet the saga is far from finished.
Former police general Oleksiy Pukach admitted to the murder, but claimed he strangled Gongadze "by accident" on September 16, 2000 while questioning Gongadze about ties to foreign states.
Pukach claimed that former president Leonid Kuchma and his chief-of-staff ordered the killing. Initially the authorities claimed Gongadze had killed himself.
The verdict was given in a tiny and poorly ventilated courtroom packed with police security and some 30 journalists at the end of a months-long trial that took place behind closed doors.
After killing Gongadze, Pukach decapitated the body and dumped the corpse in a forest outside Kyiv where it was later found. Gongadze's head has never been recovered, although part of his skull was found in 2009.
Gongadze was a thorn in the Kuchma's administration side. He founded Ukrainska Pravda, an outspoken online news site that had become famous for its investigations into corruption amongst Ukraine's elite.
The murder sparked widespread condemnation of Kuchma and demonstrators calling for justice camped out on Kyiv's main drag, Kreschatik, in a precursor of the tent camps that were so effective during the Orange Revolution in 2004.
Indeed, the murder radicalized the population and spurred them into active opposition that was the political foundation on which the later revolution was built. Russia lacks a similar unifying event around which the nascent opposition can rally and united the population against the government.
Antagonism toward Kuchma grew further when a series of tapes emerged of Kuchma's conversations with his officials that implicated the president in the death. A former major of the State Guard Department, Mykola Melnychenko, hid a voice-activated tape recorded in Kuchma's office that recorded the president telling his chief-of-staff Volodymyr Lytvyn to "get rid of this ****sucker." The tapes caused a storm on their release in November 2000. But an attempt to prosecute Kuchma for ordering Gongadze's killing collapsed in December 2011 when a judge ruled that the audio recordings could not be used as evidence, as they had been obtained through "illegal means".
Gongadze's widow, Myroslava, has campaigned tirelessly for justice. This correspondent met the gaunt-looking widow in London a few years ago when she was being hosted by the British National Union of Journalists. She gave a clinical account of both the facts of her husband's murder and the general state of decay in the country. She said she would appeal this week's ruling in an effort to bring those who ordered the murder to justice.
Pukach quickly confessed to the killing on his arrest and his conviction brings some closure to this sad story. However, this is not the end of the saga. The Kyiv City Pechersk District Court that passed sentence on Pukach refused to bring charges or order an investigation into whether Kuchma or Lytvyn ordered the murder, something which was part of the testimony of Pukach, who was in charge of the internal affairs external surveillance department at the time of the killing.
"I will be satisfied when Kuchma and Lytvyn sit here next to me," Pukach said after the judged passed sentence on him. Pukach sat on a bench with a bottle of water, some pills and a small, worn-out prayer book, attentively listening to the five-hour verdict. He remained calm and focused throughout the ruling. Even when the judge announced his life sentence, Pukach's facial expression did not change remaining stiff and reserved, reports the Kyiv Post. His lawyer said the verdict would be appealed because it is too harsh. Pukach's lawyers have 15 days to file an appeal.
Kuchma and Lytvyn, who is now a member of parliament of President Viktor Yanukovych's Regions party, have always denied the allegations. The court found that Pukach was acting on orders from his direct superior, former interior minister Yuriy Kravchenko, who was seeking a career promotion, the judge speculated.
Kravchenko conveniently died in 2005 when he was shot twice in the head on the same day he was due to face questions from prosecutors in the Gongadze murder case. The authorities ruled that killing suicide, yet failed to explain how a suicide victim could shoot themselves in the head twice.
Valentyna Telychenko, lawyer for Gonzadze's widow, said the court was clearly under pressure from unknown people. The court repeatedly ignored her requests to call Kuchma and Lytvyn into the witness box during the trial, she told journalists.
"We will appeal, as I disagree with the statement that the crime was not ordered. Apart from the motive related to Pukach's career, another motive was to fulfill an order [to kill Gongadze]. I am surprised by the fact that the court declared that the fact that Kravchenko gave instructions to Pukach had been proven, and at the same time it refuses to admit the fact that the murder was ordered by someone," Telychenko said.
The three other police officers who helped Pukach kidnap and murder the journalist were sentenced in 2008 to 12 and 13 years behind bars. Pukach has been on the run for years, but was finally arrested in Zhytomyr region on July 21, 2009, and has been kept in custody since then.
The court also found Pukach guilty of kidnapping the journalist and attempts to cover up the crime by ordering the destruction of documents, including illegal police surveillance of Gongadze before he was killed. The judge ordered that Pukach be stripped of all his belongings and his police general's rank. The court also ordered Pukach pay UAH500,000 ($62,500) to Gongadze's widow Myroslava and UAH100,000 ($12,500) to journalist Oleksiy Podolsky for moral damages, who was attacked and kidnapped in June 2000.
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