Murder Trial Tests Yushchenko's Ukraine

KIEV, Ukraine -- Three policemen accused of killing a high-profile investigative journalist went on trial in Ukraine yesterday as the wife of the dead man claimed the defendants were being used as scapegoats.

Myroslava Gongadze is seen in the Kiev's Appeals Court before the trial about the 2000 killing of her husband Heorhiy Gongadze, a prominent journalist, in Kiev on Monday, Jan. 9, 2006. Three former police officers went on trial Monday for their alleged involvement in the killing of muckraking Ukrainian journalist Heorhiy Gongadze, a high-profile case that authorities have vowed to solve.

The murder of Georgy Gongadze, who was decapitated and buried in a shallow grave, was one of the flashpoints that provoked the orange revolution that brought President Viktor Yushchenko to power last winter. Ukraine's handling of the case is being seen as a test of the country's democratic credentials as it grooms itself for European integration.

Mr Yushchenko has said that solving the case is a priority, but he and other public figures have been forced to deny hindering the investigation to protect allies who knew about the murder plot.

Secretly recorded tapes that appeared after the journalist's death seemed to suggest that the former president Leonid Kuchma had ordered the killing because of the 31-year-old reporter's reports about corruption. Mr Kuchma denies such suggestions.

Gongadze's corpse was found soaked with acid in a forest outside Kiev in November 2000, several weeks after he was abducted. The police officers Mykola Protasov, Valery Kostenko and Alexander Popovych were formally charged yesterday with killing the reporter, who worked for the Ukrayinskaya Pravda website. They were arrested last February. Another ex-officer, Oleksiy Pukach, is being sought.

Speaking outside court in Kiev, Gongadze's widow, Myroslava, said his mother was not attending the hearing because "she is certain that the men who sit in the court today are scapegoats, and not the real people who ordered this crime". She added: "These people had no personal motives for killing Georgy. The next step will be when the organisers of this crime are brought to justice. Their identities are known and they must be punished along with the people sitting in the dock today."

Last March the former interior minister Yuri Kravchenko was found dead on the day he was to be interrogated about the murder. He had apparently committed suicide, but sceptics suggest he was forced to kill himself to protect politicians who are now allies of Mr Yushchenko.

In September a commission of MPs concluded that the parliamentary Speaker, Volodymyr Lytvyn, had "instigated the abduction" of Gongadze, but no criminal charges were brought. He denies the allegation. A month later the general prosecutor, Svyatoslav Piskun, was sacked, in part for his allegedly poor handling of the case.

The return to Ukraine in November of the bodyguard who made secret recordings of Mr Kuchma raised hopes of a breakthrough, but no senior official has yet been charged, and the validity of the tapes has always been disputed. Yesterday's hearing was adjourned until January 23.

Source: Guardian Unlimited