KIEV (AFP) — A court in Kiev handed long sentences Saturday to three former police officers for the 2000 murder of Ukrainian journalist Georgy Gongadze which contributed to the Orange Revolution four years later.
But there was little sense of justice having been done for Gongadze's widow, who firmly believes her husband's brutal killing was ordered by the previous political regime and now fears the real executioners may never come to justice.
Valeri Kostenko and Olexander Popovich each received 12-year sentences, while Mykola Protasov was jailed for 13 years at the end of a trial that has been running since January 2006, mainly behind closed doors.
The case has transfixed Ukraine, with current president Viktor Yushchenko making the investigation a priority for his administration after succeeding Leonid Kuchma.
"The enquiry into who ordered this killing is de facto finished," said Valentyna Telychenko, the lawyer for the journalist's widow, Myroslava Gongadze.
Gongadze, frequently critical of former president Kuchma in articles for his Internet newspaper, Ukrainska Pravda, disappeared in September 2000 after leaving a friend's apartment in Kiev.
What was believed to be his decapitated body was found two months later in woods near the capital. The head has never been recovered.
Yushchenko -- who suffered near-fatal poisoning himself on the eve of 2004 elections, with that enquiry at a dead end -- has charged that the former regime had shown no desire to solve the murder and "protected the killer."
Those who accuse Kuchma of involvement in the killing point to about 700 hours of recordings said to have been made in secret in his office by a former presidential bodyguard, Mykola Melnichenko.
They were released by leading socialist Olexander Moroz, sparking months of protests as Ukrainian citizens demanded the removal of the head of state, which ultimately paved the way for the change of regime in late-2004.
In the recordings, a voice resembling Kuchma's says that the journalist should be kidnapped by Chechens or taken somewhere and "stripped naked".
The bodyguard, who fled to the United States shortly after releasing the tapes five years ago, returned to Kiev to answer prosecutors' questions but a parliamentary commission ruled the recordings' authenticity could not be proved.
While the evidence was ruled inadmissible, the commission nevertheless implicated Kuchma, although the former president has always denied any involvement or knowledge of the circumstances surrounding the death.
The investigation into the killing was hampered by the suicide last March of a key witness, former interior minister Yury Kravchenko, whose voice is one of those on the incriminating tape recordings.
A fourth suspect, General Olexiy Pukach, also fled the country.
Viktor Chevguz, lawyer for Protassov, criticised the "severe and unjust" verdict on the grounds his client played a "secondary" role. Yuri Grigorenko, Kostenko's representative, said he would appeal.
Gongadze's case has been a rallying point for journalists worldwide, with many querying why the regime would target a 31-year-old of Georgian birth whose audience was so small.
Some media outlets have run conspiracy theories blaming overseas secret agents -- usually Russian or American -- who were seeking to weaken Kuchma, who immediately became a pariah in the West.
Myroslava Gongadze and their two children received political asylum in the United States and have lived there since 2001.
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