Ex-Police Officers on Trial in Ukraine

KIEV, Ukraine -- The trial of three former police officers charged with killing a high-profile journalist opened Monday, but judges abruptly postponed proceedings after a defendant complained of a health problem.

Former police officers Mykola Protasov (L), and Valery Kostenko listen to proceedings during the trial about their alleged involvement in the 2000 killing of Heorhiy Gongadze, a prominent journalist, in Kiev on Monday, Jan. 9, 2006.

The case stemming from the 2000 death of Hrihory Gongadze, a muckraking Internet journalist, is being closely watched as a test for this ex-Soviet republic's new Western-leaning government and its commitment to the rule of law.

Gongadze, 31, was abducted and his decapitated body was found in a forest outside Kiev in 2000. Months of protests erupted against former President Leonid Kuchma after a key witness later released tape recordings in which voices sounding like those of Kuchma and his then-chief of staff Volodymyr Lytvyn are heard conspiring against Gongadze.

Both have repeatedly denied any involvement.

President Viktor Yushchenko has vowed to solve the politically charged case, in which Kuchma and a number of other high profile officials have been questioned. Experts, however, have criticized authorities for not identifying the organizers of the crime.

Dozens of people, including lawyers, relatives and prosecutors, packed the tiny courtroom at the Kiev Appeals Court to watch the first substantive hearing in the case against Valery Kostenko, Mykola Protasov and Alexander Popovych. All are charged with murder and abuse of office. Another former police officer, Oleksiy Pukach, is being sought.

The three did not enter any pleas during Monday's proceedings.

Dozens of reporters were barred from the courtroom due to the room's small size.

About two hours after the start of proceedings, a crowd of journalists managed to break through police lines and enter the tiny courtroom while judges were in an adjacent room considering a motion by Gongadze's lawyer, Andryi Fedur.

Under Ukrainian law, the prosecution side may be represented not only by state prosecutors, but also by victims and their lawyers.

At one point, the judges called a 45-minute recess, during which court officials said an ambulance was rushed to treat Protasov for an ailment related to high blood pressure. The court then abruptly postponed the next hearing until Jan. 23, citing Protasov's health.

Judge Irina Hrihoriyeva said the court would find better location to accommodate spectators when the trial resumed.

Fedur suggested the trial may have been postponed because journalists broke in, and he criticized the fact that the proceedings were held in such a small courtroom, effectively barring the media from observing.

"It is being done so that nobody would understand what had happened," he said. "The principles of openness aren't being observed."

For many Ukrainians, solving the Gongadze case is a crucial test for Yushchenko's government, which came to power following the Orange Revolution mass protests on pledges to fight corruption and bring Ukraine closer to Europe.

Source: AP

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