Kyiv’s Pechersk district court on Dec. 14 ordered prosecutors to drop criminal charges against ex-President Leonid Kuchma on grounds that evidence linking him to the Sept. 16, 2000, murder of journalist Georgiy Gongadze was insufficient.
Critics said the ruling amounts to the latest episode of whitewashing in the 11-year old criminal investigation which has been plagued by cover-ups and continues to haunt Ukraine.
In a surprise announcement, prosecutors last March said for the first time that Kuchma was a suspect in the Gongadze murder case. He was formally charged with exceeding his authority as president in giving an order that led to the journalist’s murder.
Hopes for justice in the case, long seen as a litmus test of Ukraine’s dedication to rule of law, have evaporated with the Dec. 14 court ruling, critics say.
Secretly made audio recordings of conversations in the presidential office made by renegade former presidential bodyguard Mykola Melnychenko appear to implicate Kuchma in the Gongadze murder. But the court on Dec. 14 ruled they are inadmissible as evidence because they were illegally produced.
Ruling Ukraine with authoritarian powers from 1994-2005 and now 73, Kuchma has relentlessly denied involvement in the murder of the journalist, whose reports were notoriously critical of authorities.
However, other evidence also seems to implicate Kuchma in a chain of events leading to Gongadze’s murder.
That evidence includes reported testimony by police Gen. Oleksiy Pukach, being tried secretly for the murder, clearly implicating Kuchma and other top officials. Prosecutors themselves concluded that Kuchma’s confidante, former Interior Minister Yuriy Kravchenko, was among the officials who gave the order to Pukach. Pukach has reportedly confessed to the crime; three of his subordinate police officers are serving prison sentences for the crime. Kravchenko died from two gunshot wounds to the head on March 4, 2005, the day he was supposed to testify.
“The ruling is illegal; we will appeal it,” said Valentyna Telychenko, a lawyers representing Gongadze’s widow. “But let there be no illusions now. There is no political will to solve this case, to prosecute those that masterminded the murder and cover-ups.”
Prosecutors also said they would appeal the ruling, but their resolve in prosecuting Kuchma to the fullest of the laws has been questioned. After charging Kuchma, the case made no visible progress. Instead, prosecutors last summer turned their attention to Melnychenko. The former bodyguard faces treason charges and an arrest warrant has been issued after prosecutors said he fled Ukraine. Melnychenko’s whereabouts are not clear.
Opposition politicians and human rights activists have long questioned the political resolve of Ukraine’s elite to prosecute top officials who may have given orders to kill Gongadze. Pointing to years of cover-ups in this and other alleged corruption cases, observers allege the nation’s influential officials continue to rule with impunity from justice and prosecution.
“There was a lot to look into, but they simply closed the case,” said Yevhen Zakharov, a Ukrainian human rights advocate.
Kuchma may not have ordered the crime; he could have been set up, according to Zakharov. But the handling of the trial nonetheless shows that Ukraine’s “judiciary is very dependent [on the political authorities], not impartial” in cases involving influential officials.
“This shows that ex-state officials can escape justice,” Zakharov added.
President Viktor Yanukovych has pledged to crack down on widespread corruption. But two years into his tenure, corruption has increased by the accounts of leading international indexes and studies. Moreover, his administration is increasingly being accused by the European Union and U.S. of persecuting political rivals, starting with opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko. She was on Oct. 11 sentenced to seven years in prison on charges seen as trumped up.
In a Kyiv Post interview before hear arrest, Tymoshenko said that Kuchma should stand trial for his role in the Gongadze murder, pointing to the Melnychenko tape and other evidence. But she predicted that the charges launched by prosecutors against him were merely “window-dressing,” an attempt by Yanukovych, in her words, to demonstrate that he was not selectively prosecuting former top officials.
Tymoshenko predicted that Kuchma would under Yanukovych be cleared of any wrongdoing. Yanukovych has repeatedly insisted that Ukraine’s courts and prosecutors are independent.
Citing rollbacks on the democratic front and a culture of impunity for influential officials, U.S.-based democracy watchdog Freedom House warned this year that Ukraine is sliding deeper into authoritarianism and kleptocracy.