Lawyer Asks Ukrainian Court To Reverse Decision Barring Media From Journalist's Killing Trial

KIEV, Ukraine -- A lawyer representing the family of a prominent slain journalist appealed on Thursday to the court trying the alleged killers to open the proceedings to the media, saying it was disgraceful to hold the high-profile trial behind closed doors.

Lawyer Andriy Fedur

Three former policemen went on trial last month in connection with the 2000 killing of Heorhiy Gongadze, a muckraking Internet journalist who wrote about high-level corruption under former President Leonid Kuchma.

The ex-president has denied allegations that he ordered the journalist's murder. The claims of official involvement in Gongadze's death sparked mass demonstrations against Kuchma's authoritarian rule.

Lawyer Andriy Fedur, who represents Gongadze's mother, accused authorities of failing to properly investigate the crime.

The long-awaited trial, closely watched as a litmus test for this ex-Soviet republic's new Western-leaning government, was closed to the media last month after prosecutors supported a defense request to bar the public during key testimony, arguing that their case included state secrets. Journalists are now rarely permitted inside the tiny courtroom in Kyiv's Court of Appeals.

"Special forces kill people and authorities say this is a state secret ... this case is absurd," said Fedur.

The court on Thursday ordered the Interior Ministry to study which material constituted a state secret, and report back. No timeframe was given for when this might happen, and the trial went into recess in the meantime.

Fedur's request won the support of President Viktor Yushchenko, who has expressed his disappointment with the court's decision to work behind closed doors. Yushchenko promised during his 2004 presidential campaign to solve the politically charged case and pledged the trial would be open to the media. His chief-of-staff joined protesters last week who gathered outside the courthouse to complain about the closed door hearings.

Gongadze, 31, was abducted in 2000 and his beheaded body was found in a forest outside Kyiv. Months of protests erupted against Kuchma after a key witness later released tape recordings in which voices resembling those of Kuchma and his then chief-of-staff Volodymyr Lytvyn are heard conspiring against Gongadze. Lytvyn has also denied involvement.

The trial has been beset by problems since it began Jan. 9 in a courtroom so cramped that journalists unable to get inside broke through police lines and shoved their way into the room, eventually forcing a recess.

Since then, the trial has regularly faced postponements as defendants complained of health problems.

"I am not a doctor ... but I have the suspicion that such an epidemic of illness is not an accident," Fedur told The Associated Press in an earlier interview.

Gongadze's family has accused the government of going after the police officers, while failing to find who ordered the killing. Fedur asked the court to question Kuchma, Lytvyn and the former presidential bodyguard who made the secret recordings but said prosecutors told him it wasn't necessary.

He also wanted Yushchenko to be questioned because Yushchenko's voice is heard on the tapes. Yushchenko isn't involved in discussions about Gongadze, but if he were to confirm that the conversations were real, it could help verify the accuracy of the recordings, Fedur said.

"As the case is being presented now, it is a motiveless killing, not for anything or any reason ... just four police officers got together and this is the result," Fedur said. A fourth officer allegedly linked to the case has been put on the international wanted list.

Source: AP