How a headless corpse and a dead witness came back to haunt the leader of Ukraine

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Revelations about a high level cover up in the murder of a campaigning journalist have rocked the regime of Leonid Kuchma, Ukraine's President.

Revelations about a high level cover up in the murder of a campaigning journalist have rocked the regime of Leonid Kuchma, Ukraine's President.

The Independent has obtained more than 200 pages of confidential documents from disaffected senior law enforcement officials angry that their investigations into the September 2000 murder and beheading of Heorhiy Gongadze have been suppressed. The documents show that the prosecutor-general's office had evidence that secret police teams from the Ministry of Internal Affairs (MVS) had mounted a surveillance operation against Mr Gongadze from July 2000 until the day of his disappearance.

Mr Gongadze, the editor of an internet newspaper, Ukrayinsk Pravda, angered the President and his associates by accusing them of financial corruption. Mr Gongadze's headless corpse was discovered in November 2000. A few weeks later a former bodyguard of the President fled the country and revealed he had secretly recorded Mr Kuchma's conversations, including one in which he angrily told subordinates to "take care" of Mr Gongadze. Despite more than three years of investigations, nobody has been charged with the killing.

Most of the documents consist of interviews with MVS personnel. The Independent also has a copy of a secret autopsy performed on a witness who died in MVS custody last August. In interview notes, Ihor Honcharov, a former MVS officer, said he knew who killed Mr Gongadze and where his head was hidden. He claimed General Oleksiy Pukach, an MVS police commander, arranged to hand the journalist over to criminals who murdered him and that the general was following orders from Yuriy Kravchenko, the then MVS minister, who was following orders from Mr Kuchma.

Mr Honcharov's death was attributed to illness, but the autopsy shows he was murdered. Ukrainian authorities branded the documents as fake. Later they admitted the papers were authentic and said they were launching criminal inquiries to discover who leaked them, and who killed Mr Honcharov.

Yesterday, the President's spokesman told journalists Mr Kuchma would not sue The Independent over suggestions he was involved in Mr Gongadze's death, but compared the author of the articles to a necrophiliac. A pro-government website said that the newspaper paid $10,000 (£5,500) for the documents. No money was paid by The Independent or the author.

One internal memorandum from the prosecutor-general's office says General Pukach was in charge of the surveillance operation on Mr Gongadze and that he illegally destroyed documents and actively hindered the investigation.

It also states that MVS personnel were illegally monitoring politicians and journalists, selling information and carrying out surveillance on a pay-as-we-spy basis, as well as selling secret agency identifications and credentials to criminals.

The previous prosecutor-general had ordered the general's arrest. A week later, the President dismissed him and appointed Hennadiy Vasilyev, who freed General Pukach. If President Kuchma orders new proceedings, the possibility is that the general will talk about who gave him his orders.

The perception by Western governments that Mr Kuchma's administration was hindering the investigation has led to the President's isolation on the international stage. But Britain and the US have softened their stance because Ukraine provides a large military contingent for Iraq. And he has been invited to attend next Monday's Nato summit in Istanbul.

Meanwhile, the Council of Europe has asked for copies of the documents in the newspaper's possession. The Brussels-based International Federation of Journalists and the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists want a new inquiry into the murder and Ben Campbell, a US Senator, cited The Independent's report when he called for a new investigation in Congress last Thursday.

Some MVS personnel cited in the documents, many labelled No.60-1241, the murder case number, believe the last MVS surveillance team watched Mr Gongadze's abduction or carried it out themselves and handed him over to gangsters. Although General Pukach destroyed records to prevent identification of that team, they could be identified by a process of elimination. MVS officers allege that two colleagues, Oleksandr Bernak and Oleksandr Muzyka, along with General Pukach, played key roles in the abduction. Other papers show the investigation by the then prosecutor for Kiev, Volodymyr Babenko, was conducted in a way intended to prevent the killers being arrested and that Mr Babenko tried to eliminate the body after its discovery.

It is unclear how long Mr Gongadze lived after his abduction. At some point he was killed by a shot or blow to his head. His body was then stored somewhere, possibly as an anonymous corpse at an official mortuary. Some time later his head was removed and the body was transported to the woods outside Kiev, where it was found in November 2000.

The documents suggest the cover-up goes all the way to the President, but the irony is that in the secret recordings Mr Kuchma never actually gives orders to kill the journalist.

Some say Mr Gongadze was kidnapped on the orders of over-zealous figures in Mr Kuchma's administration who wanted to please the President. Others believe the murder was part of a sophisticated plot by the Russian intelligence services to discredit or blackmail Mr Kuchma and to thwart his aim to align with the West or by some of his closest crooked cronies who feared he was about to ditch them.

The Ukrainian authorities said this week they have a confession to Mr Gongadze's murder from a man they called "Mister K". His widow, Myroslava Gongadze, told The Independent: "This shows the cover up is continuing."