March 27, 2011 10:43 pm
It has taken 11 years, but last week’s charging of Leonid Kuchma, Ukraine’s former president, in connection with the murder of the journalist Georgy Gongadze is a big step. The importance for Ukraine and today’s president Viktor Yanukovich – who says he wants to bring the country closer to the European Union – of satisfactorily solving the gruesome case is difficult to overstate.
The body of Gongadze, an investigative reporter often critical of Mr Kuchma’s presidency, was found beheaded in woods outside Kiev in late 2000. His family and journalists’ groups have have long suspected Mr Kuchma’s involvement, which he has denied. A transparent, fairly conducted trial allowing the former president to clear his name or be properly convicted could bring justice, and closure to a case that has haunted Ukraine for a decade.
That could be particularly powerful in a country where the rule of law is feeble even by former Soviet standards, dominated by a shady oligarchic capitalism.
There are, sadly, strong reasons to doubt such an outcome. Mr Kuchma may face further counts – he is so far charged only with “exceeding his authority” – but the 10-year statute of limitations on most crimes has expired. So the former president, even if found guilty of involvement, could escape jail, though prosecutors say courts can cancel the time limit. Yulia Tymoshenko, former premier and Mr Yanukovich’s foe, alleges the Kuchma case is a “bluff” to deflect criticism from the current government’s selective legal pursuit of her and several of her officials. Some speculate business backers of Mr Yanukovich may be using the case to pressure Mr Kuchma’s tycoon son-in-law.
The case has risks for Mr Yanukovich, put forward as a presidential candidate in 2004, when alleged vote-rigging sparked the Orange Revolution, by some of Mr Kuchma’s backers. Prosecutors are considering as evidence tape recordings which, though never fully authenticated, appear to implicate the former president. Finding out who produced them is critical to getting to the truth.
Yet the conduct of a proper trial would strengthen Mr Yanukovich’s claim to be determined to combat corruption and push through economic reforms. It could also help address criticisms that he has eroded democratic freedoms since coming to power a year ago. If he is serious about adopting European values, he has much work ahead. The case will be closely watched, in the EU and US too.
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