By Ania Tsoukanova (AFP) – Jan 29, 2013
KIEV — A Ukrainian court on Tuesday sentenced a former senior interior ministry official to life in prison for strangling critical journalist Georgy Gongadze in 2000, the highest-profile criminal case in the country's post-Soviet history.
Olexiy Pukach, the former head of external surveillance at the Ukrainian interior ministry, is the most senior figure to be jailed over the killing of the journalist who was vehemently opposed to then president Leonid Kuchma.
But many observers said that the masterminds of Gongadze's murder may never be brought to justice and Pukach indicated Tuesday those who ordered the killing had not been punished.
"The court came to a conclusion of the necessity for Pukach to serve punishment in the form of life imprisonment," said the verdict read out by the judge at the Ukrainian capital Kiev's Pechersky district court.
When asked by the judge whether the verdict was clear to him, Pukach said: "The verdict will be clear to me only when Kuchma and Lytvyn are sitting next to me."
Kuchma was Ukraine's president between 1994 and 2005 while his ex-chief of staff Volodymyr Lytvyn served as speaker in the last parliament.
Both have always vehemently denied involvement in the murder. In 2011, Kuchma was charged with involvement in the murder but the case was dropped.
Valentyna Telychenko, the lawyer for Gongadze's widow Miroslava, said she would appeal, noting that the court did not name the true masterminds of the murder.
Gongadze was the founder of the Ukrainska Pravda news site that is now one of Ukraine's loudest opposition media voices. He went missing in September 2000, and in November his headless body was found in a forest outside the capital Kiev.
Pukach, who was arrested in 2009, maintains he was only partly responsible for the journalist's death.
Earlier in the day he said he had received an order to conduct surveillance on the investigative journalist and kill him from Yuriy Kravchenko, the interior minister at the time of the murder, an AFP correspondent said from the court.
Kravchenko himself was found dead in 2005 in what was concluded to be a suicide but which critics of the investigation have long suspected to be the result of foul play.
He was found dead with two gunshot wounds to his head just as he was about to be interrogated in the case in 2005.
Pukach told the court Gongadze died as a result of an accident. He said he had wanted to extract a confession from Gongadze that he was a spy and was strangling him with a belt when the belt slipped.
Pukach added Gongadze had told him he was collecting information for foreign embassies in Ukraine, alleging the journalist had expected to receive $400,000 for his efforts.
A balding middle-aged man, Pukach listened to the verdict from a cage surrounded by four black-clad masked security guards.
According to the verdict, the court found that Pukach did intend to strangle the journalist to death and also formally stripped the ex-police general of his rank.
In 2008, Ukraine sentenced three former interior ministry officials who worked under Pukach - Valeriy Kostenko, Mykola Protasov and Olexander Popovych -- to terms of 12 and 13 years in prison for carrying out the killing.
But Gongadze's supporters had long argued that the murder had been ordered at a very high level.
They pointed to tapes recorded by a former bodyguard of Kuchma and made public in 2000 where voices alleged to be of the former president and Lytvyn are heard speaking about eliminating Gongadze.
Analysts said that legally the case has now been closed but there will always be a possibility to revisit it including for political purposes.
"Legally, a full stop has now been put at the end of this case. Now the case goes from the legal realm to the political one," said Kostyantyn Bondarenko, head of the Ukrainian Politics Institute, a think tank.
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