Ukrainian prosecutors have opened a criminal investigation into former president Leonid Kuchma on suspicion of involvement in the brutal 2000 murder of investigative journalist Georgy Gongadze.
Renat Kuzmin, deputy head of Ukraine’s prosecutor’s office, said on Tuesday that a criminal case against 72-year-old Mr Kuchma, president from 1994 to early 2005, had been formally launched on Monday.
The murder of Mr Gongadze, whose headless body was found in woods outside the capital Kiev, has been one of Ukraine’s longest-running political scandals. The reporter’s family has long accused Mr Kuchma of being involved and international journalist groups have alleged a cover-up.
If he is charged in connection with the case, Mr Kuchma could become one of only a handful of presidents from former Soviet republics to stand trial in a region where authoritarian and corrupt leadership is common. It would also bring closure to a case that has haunted Ukraine for a decade.
“A criminal case has been opened in relation to Kuchma. He is suspected of involvement in illegal actions and the murder of ... Gongadze,” Mr Kuzmin said, adding that restrictions had been imposed on the former president’s movements.
“Kuchma is suspected of abuse of power, of giving illegal instructions to the interior ministry’s leadership, which consequently led to the murder,” Mr Kuzmin added.
Mr Kuchma was not immediately available for comment, but he has repeatedly denied involvement in the case.
Ukraine is notorious for its failure to uphold the rule of law. Both ordinary citizens and investors say the nation’s political and business elite too often benefit from impunity, and are rarely punished for widespread corruption and cronyism.
The Gongadze case comes amid mounting domestic and international pressure for Ukraine to solve a long list of unsolved crimes, allegedly involving top officials.
Mr Gongadze, whose journalism frequently attacked Mr Kuchma’s authoritarian and allegedly corrupt rule, was abducted by police, choked to death, burnt and beheaded on September 16 2000.
Three police officers were in 2008 convicted of taking part in the murder. A court granted them reduced prison terms of 12-13 years in return for their co-operation.
A breakthrough came with the 2009 capture of a police general now charged with committing the murder. And last autumn, prosecutors said they amassed evidence that Yuri Kravchenko, interior minister in 2000, ordered the killing.
Mr Kravchenko was found dead with two gunshot wounds to his head in March 2005. His death was officially deemed a suicide.
Officials have long shied away from treating Mr Kuchma as a suspect. He was allegedly implicated in Mr Gongadze’s murder by secretly made audio recordings released by a whistleblowing presidential bodyguard a year after the killing.
On Tuesday, Mr Kuzmin said that the recordings were considered “material evidence” in the case.
Handling of the case could test the current Ukrainian leadership’s commitment to press freedom and the rule of law. Viktor Yanukovich, president since February 2010, faces accusations of backsliding on democracy and persecution of opponents.
Yulia Tymoshenko, former prime minister and co-leader of the Orange Revolution who is under investigation for alleged misuse of state funds, called the probe of Mr Kuchma a “bluff” and a “show” designed to make Mr Yanukovich look even-handed.