A former police general has been found guilty of the murder of a critical journalist, causing new speculation about the role of former president Leonid Kuchma in the case.
It took over five hours for the judges in a Kyiv district court to read the verdict on the 60-year-old former police general Oleksiy Pukach on Tuesday (29.01.2013), but at the end, its decision was clear: Pukach was handed a life sentence for the murder of the journalist Heorhiy Gongadze. Pukach's lawyers have said he will appeal.
This is the culmination of a murder case that has influenced the recent history of Ukraine like no other. Gongadze was a critical journalist based in Kyiv, who founded the news site Ukrainska Pravda, now one of the most important news sources in the country.
The court found that the 31-year-old Gongadze had been abducted by Pukach and three other policemen on September 16 2000 in the center of Kyiv. Pukach admitted in court that he had strangled Gongandze with his own hands. In November 2000, a headless body was discovered. Only after some time could the corpse be identified as Gongadze's.
'Gongadze-gate' shook Ukraine
The case became more explosive when secret tapes emerged from the office of the former Ukrainian president Leonid Kuchma, in which Kuchma was heard cursing Gongadze and promising to punish him. People began talking about Gongadze-gate, Kuchma-gate or the cassette scandal.
That led to a protest movement demanding Kuchma's resignation. His position was very shaky for a while, but he managed to hold on to office. Meanwhile, the West was moving away from Ukraine, as the country began favoring Russia diplomatically.
It was only after the victory of the pro-Western Orange Revolution in 2004 that things began to move in the Gongadze case. The three policemen who were involved in the abduction were arrested and given long jail sentences. Pukach himself, seen as the ringleader, was arrested in 2009.
New accusations against Kuchma
But even after the latest verdict, it's still not clear why Gongadze had to die and who was really behind the killing. Pukach insists his death was a mistake - he only wanted to frighten him into telling him about alleged spying activities. The investigators say that the killing was ordered by the interior minister, Yuri Kravchenko, who, say the authorities, shot himself years ago.
Pukach caused a sensation during the reading of the verdict when he was asked whether he agreed with it. He answered, "Yes, so long as Kuchma and Litvin are sitting in this cage with me."
Volodymyr Litvin was head of the president's office at the time of the killing. He's always denied having anything to do with it. Kuchma too has always denied any involvement and a case against him was abandoned in 2011.
"One has to assume that Kuchma was involved," says Eastern Europe expert Gerhard Simon of Cologne University, but he doubts that it will ever be known who gave the orders: "The fact that we still don't know who was behind it can only be explained if they are being covered by those in power today."
Justifying the Tymoshenko verdict
Simon thinks that the verdict could have foreign policy significance. The case caused headlines across the world, and the Council of Europe and several western governments called for a thorough investigation. Simon thinks Ukraine may well suggest to the West that it finally stops worrying about it - but "I doubt that their expectations will be fulfilled," he told Deutsche Welle.
Simon thinks the Ukrainian government might try to go further and use the verdict to help them with another case: in 2011, the opposition leader and former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko was sentenced to seven years imprisonment at a trial that was criticized worldwide. Ukraine could try to use the latest verdict as evidence of the independence of the country's courts. Simon doesn't think that will work either.
Now, ten years after Gongadze's murder, journalists still live dangerously in Ukraine. In 2010, the journalist Vasil Klementiev disappeared in the eastern Ukrainian city of Kharkiv. Prosecutors believe he was killed in connection with his critical reports about the local police, and thinks that the murderers were probably policemen. But the body has never been found.