Ukraine's ex-President Leonid Kuchma on Wednesday denied charges he was complicit in the 2000 murder of opposition journalist Georgiy Gongadze. Kuchma says he is ready to endure "all the torments of hell" to prove his innocence.
REUTERS - Ukrainian ex-president Leonid Kuchma on Wednesday denied involvement in the 2000 murder of opposition journalist Georgiy Gongadze and said he was ready to go through "all the torments of hell" to prove his innocence.
The opening of the case on Tuesday against Kuchma, once a patron of President Viktor Yanukovich, surprised many observers.
Critics of Yanukovich and the political opposition have consistently accused him of covering up misdeeds of his political and business allies since coming to power in February 2010, while at the same time persecuting opposition rivals.
Speaking to journalists before he appeared for questioning at the general prosecutor's office over the Gongadze killing, Kuchma said he wanted to "wash away the shameful stain" of the accusation against him.
"You know I lived 10 years under psychological pressure. So today I am morally ready to go through all the torments of hell to show that I am innocent," the 72-year-old Kuchma said.
Kuchma, a former Soviet missile factory director who served two terms as president of independent Ukraine from 1994 to 2005, appeared for questioning after the general prosecutor's office opened a criminal case against him on suspicion of involvement in Gongadze's killing.
The grisly murder of the 31-year-old campaigning editor, a fierce public critic of Kuchma and a well-known face on TV talk shows, became post-Soviet Ukraine's most notorious crime case.
It led to violent street clashes in Kiev between protesters and riot police and marked a turning point in Kuchma's 10-year rule.
Former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko, Yanukovich's fiercest rival, has said that she sees the whole affair as "bluff and window-dressing" aimed at projecting the impression that the Yanukovich leadership was abiding by the rule of law.
She said Kuchma's prosecution will come to nothing.
One analyst suggested the proceedings may clear Kuchma's name. "In the end it may turn out that things will suit Kuchma fine. He risks very little -- there is no real direct proof against him," said Volodymyr Fesenko of the Penta think tank.
In a further twist, a former bodyguard of Kuchma who was involved in the publication of audio tapes that appeared to incriminate Kuchma in the Gongadze affair also appeared at the general prosecutor's office on Wednesday.
The tapes were part of secret recordings made between 1998 and 2000 by Mykola Melnychenko, who worked on Kuchma's security staff. A voice which resembles that of Kuchma can be heard on the tapes telling officials to "deal with" Gongadze.
Their authenticity has never been confirmed.
Melnychenko, before going in to meet investigators on Wednesday told journalists he wanted "a face-to-face" meeting with Kuchma.
"We have contradictions in our evidence ... These contradictions must be eliminated. One of the ways of eliminating them is through a face-to-face," he said.
Gongadze, whose Internet newspaper Ukrainska Pravda was sharply critical of Kuchma's term in office, disappeared in September 2000 in the capital Kiev. His headless body was found one-and-a half months later in woodland outside the city.
Last September, on the 10th anniversary of Gongadze's death, the state prosecutor named Yuri Kravchenko, who was interior minister at the time, as the person who had instigated and ordered Gongadze's killing.
In 2005, Kravchenko was found dead at home from gunshot wounds which were officially said to be self-inflicted.
Two Interior Ministry officers are already in jail for their part in the killing, while a third person, former police general Oleksiy Pukach, is awaiting trial.
But Gongadze's family and the political opposition have always said other powerful figures were behind his killing.
The investigation now under way should decide whether there are grounds to charge Kuchma with a crime or not.