3 Guilty in Gongadze Murder

ReutersMykola Protasov, left, and Valery Kostenko standing in a Kiev court Saturday.
KIEV -- A Ukrainian court has convicted three former police officers of killing investigative journalist Heorhiy Gongadze nearly eight years ago.

Gongadze, who crusaded against official corruption, was killed in 2000 and his beheaded body was found in a forest outside Kiev. His head has not been found.

Former officer Mykola Protasov was sentenced Saturday to 13 years in jail. Valeriy Kostenko and Oleksandr Popovych each received 12-year sentences.

Investigations have failed to identify those who ordered the killing.

"Gongadze's wife and mother have repeatedly said that they will insist on further investigations to identify those that ordered the murder," said Valentina Telychenko, a lawyer for the family.

The slain journalist's wife, Myroslava, and her two children received political asylum in the United States and have lived there since 2001.

Many Ukrainians have looked upon the Gongadze case as a test for the government of pro-Western President Viktor Yushchenko, who has come under harsh criticism from human rights groups for failing to solve the crime. Gongadze's killing triggered months of protests after Mykola Melnychenko, a former bodyguard of then-President Leonid Kuchma, released tapes on which a voice resembling Kuchma's is heard conspiring with others against the journalist.

Oleksiy Pukach, former chief of the Interior Ministry's surveillance department, where the three defendants all served, is wanted for the murder and is being sought on an international warrant.

Protasov's lawyer, Viktor Chevguz, said the sentence was excessively harsh and failed to recognize the role played by Pukach, who the defendants claim killed Gongadze by strangling him with his belt.

"The court should have considered that the defendants were completely subordinate to Pukach," Chevguz said.

Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko said earler in the week that it was regrettable that the trial, which has lasted more than two years, had not revealed the identity of the masterminds.

"I am really sorry that our justice is so selective. But this is not the end of the story," she said.

In September 2000, Gongadze got into what he thought was a taxi and was then joined by three others and driven outside Kiev, according to the defendants. He was beaten and strangled, his body doused with gasoline and burned. Experts said Gongadze was decapitated after his death.

Numerous tests have concluded the remains found in November 2000 were his.