Ukrainian Ex-Police Chief Sentenced To Life For Killing Prominent Journalist

A Ukrainian court has sentenced a police general to life in prison for the murder of investigative reporter Heorhiy Gongadze.

On January 29, the Pechera District Court in Kyiv found the Interior Ministry's former surveillance department chief, General Oleksiy Pukach, guilty of personally strangling Gongadze to death. Pukach was also stripped of his rank.

Gongadze, who exposed high-level corruption, was kidnapped in September 2000 and his decapitated body was found outside Kyiv several months later.

Ukraine's president at the time of the murder, Leonid Kuchma, was accused of involvement in the murder based on audio recordings secretly made in his office in which a speaker thought to be him appeared to be conspiring against the journalist.

Prosecutors charged Kuchma with involvement in the case in 2011. However, a court dropped the charges later that year, saying the main evidence against Kuchma had been obtained by illegal means and therefore could not serve as the basis for a criminal complaint.

Pukach was arrested in 2009. At his trial, he said Kuchma, his former chief of staff Volodymyr Lytvyn -- currently a parliamentary deputy --, and former Interior Minister Yuriy Kravchenko ordered Gongadze's killing.

Kravchenko was found dead in his apartment near Kyiv in 2005. Official reports said Kravchenko committed suicide, but some Ukrainian media outlets claimed that he died of two gunshot wounds to his head.

In 2008, three former police officers were found guilty of participating in Gongadze's killing and given prison sentences ranging from three to 12 years.

After the January 29 verdict, Pukach told the judge that he would acknowledge his sentence only if the former president and his former chief of staff "were here with me" as well.

Pukach suggested that the only person who wants to learn what really happened is Andriy Fedur, a lawyer representing Gongadze's mother, Lesya Gongadze.

"I told the investigation and the court everything, but the only person who wanted to know the truth in this room was Fedur," he said.

Fedur told journalists that he was unlikely to appeal the verdict.

Pukach's lawyer, Hryhoriy Demidenko, said his client planned to appeal the verdict, saying that the court had failed to find out Pukach's real motives.

Valentyna Telychenko, the lawyer of Gongadze's widow, Myroslava Gongadze, said that although she considers Pukach's sentence "adequate" to what he did, she planned to appeal the verdict because Pukach's motives had never been made clear.

"To be honest, to me it is a certain signal that the current [Ukrainian] government wants to finish the case of Gongadze punishing the executors of the crime only," Myroslava Gongadze told RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service after the verdict was announced. "Nevertheless, today the Prosecutor's Office continues investigating who ordered the crime. Unfortunately, we, as victims, do not have information on what is going on in that investigation. Now we consider appealing the verdict [Pukach], only over the motives of the crime, because we believe that the crime was ordered and we want to bring the people who were named by Pukach to justice."

Telychenko also expressed regret that the court had not focused on the fact that the journalist's murder had been ordered.