KIEV – Ukraine on Thursday charged ex-president Leonid Kuchma over the 2000 murder of a journalist, its most notorious post-Soviet crime, amid doubts he could be jailed even if found guilty.
Ukrainian prosecutors confirmed they had presented charges of “abuse of power” to Kuchma as he attended a second session of questioning after a criminal probe was formally opened earlier this week.
The headless body of 31-year-old Georgy Gongadze — the founder of the liberal Ukrainska Pravda website and a virulent critic of Kuchma — was found in 2000 after he was abducted from central Kiev.
“I have been served with charges,” Kuchma, Ukraine’s president from 1994-2005, told reporters outside the prosecutors office.
“I have not yet read (them) from beginning to end,” he said, adding he would have another session with the investigators on Monday.
He declined to elaborate on the nature of charges, only saying it was “nothing new”.
The spokesman for prosecutors, Yury Boichenko, later confirmed to AFP that Kuchma had been charged for abuse of power under an article in the Ukrainian penal code from 1960.
Ukrainian press reports have said the statute of limitations under this article was 10 years, meaning that even if Kuchma is found guilty he could escape jail. This was not confirmed by prosecutors.
“Leonid Kuchma is not threatened with jail,” wrote Sergiy Leshchenko, one of the main writers for Ukrainska Pravda which even after Gongadze’s death remains one of the most vibrant voices in the national media scene.
Prosecutors announced earlier this week they had opened a criminal probe against Kuchma on suspicion that he gave the orders that led to Gongadze’s brutal murder.
The prosecutors stopped short of saying Kuchma was suspected of personally masterminding the murder, saying the former president was suspected of abuse of power and giving illegal orders to police that led to Gongadze’s death.
The announcement caused a sensation in Ukraine, coming after a decade of pressure from Kuchma’s opponents to have him face trial for the killing of the journalist.
Previously, prosecutors had appeared to draw a line under the case last year by saying that former interior minister Yury 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.
Former interior ministry employee Olexy Pukach has been in custody since 2009 in connection with the murder. He has confessed to personally strangling the journalist with his belt and beheading him with an axe.
Kuchma said he had personally confronted Pukach, who had been summoned to the prosecutors office earlier in the day.
“I can say that there was a confrontation with Pukach,” local news agencies quoted Kuchma as saying.
“Pukach, I believe…(acts) according to a principle — no man, no problem,” he said, suggesting that Pukach was seeking to pass the buck to deceased Kravchenko.
Also present as the prosecutors office Thursday was Mykola Melnichenko, a former bodyguard of Kuchma who recorded tapes where voices — including one alleged to be of Kuchma — could be heard speaking about eliminating Gongadze.
Crucially, prosecutors ruled that the tapes were admissible evidence, for the first time since they were made public in 2000.
The tapes, whose publication at the time prompted mass protests in Ukraine, contain a voice resembling that of Kuchma suggesting to have Gongadze “kidnapped by Chechens”.
Melnichenko left the prosecutors declaring he was still hoping for a formal confrontation with Kuchma to air his allegations but this had been postponed until the coming days.