Police on trial for killing that sparked 'orange revolution'

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Three policemen have gone on trial in Kiev charged with murdering one of Ukraine's best-known investigative journalists.

The trial, billed as the most significant in Ukraine's post-Soviet history, has been eagerly awaited as political fallout from the unsolved murder of Georgiy Gongadze in 2000 played a key role in ending the 10-year autocratic rule of Leonid Kuchma.

In death, Gongadze became an icon of the then Ukrainian opposition movement. Outrage over his murder and the authorities' inability to solve it set the stage for the orange revolution of 2004, during which protesters brandished placards demanding to know the truth about what happened to Gongadze.

Although the three policemen standing trial for his murder are minor figures, Mr Kuchma, Volodomyr Lytvyn, the speaker of the Ukrainian parliament, and other senior officials have all been implicated in the case.

A parliamentary commission last year concluded that Mr Kuchma and other senior state officials had masterminded his abduction, pointing to the fact that they had been secretly taped by a disgruntled bodyguard discussing how best "to take care of" Gongadze before his death. However, Mr Kuchma, Mr Lytvyn and the others flatly deny the allegations, arguing that the recording was doctored.

Gongadze, 31, was investigating corruption in the Kuchma regime at the time of his murder and had made a name for himself as an anti-government reporter at the internet newspaper Ukrainskaya Pravda. He was abducted in September 2000 and his body was found in a forest outside Kiev two months later. He had been beaten, strangled, burnt and then decapitated.

The three policemen - Mykola Protasov, Valeriy Kostenko and Oleksandr Popovych - appeared in court yesterday. They are charged with premeditated murder and of exceeding their authority. It is not known how they will plead, although there have been unconfirmed reports that they have already confessed their guilt.

A fourth police officer wanted in connection with the journalist's murder, Oleksiy Pukach, is thought to have fled the country.

However, the opening day in court was interrupted when Mr Protasov was taken ill, forcing judges to postpone the case until 23 January. A lawyer acting for Mr Gongadze's mother, Lesia, said the episode appeared suspicious, while his widow, Myroslava, wondered why the trial needed to be interrupted for so long.

What prosecutors really want to know are the names of the people who ordered the "hit". Yuriy Kravchenko, the Interior Minister at the time of Gongadze's murder, who had been implicated in it, killed himself the day before he was due to give testimony to the inquiry. The case was reopened after The Independent published leaked documents that showed police had probably been involved in Gongadze's abduction.

Outside the court Myroslava welcomed the fact that the trial was taking place but said that those who ordered the murder of her husband should not be allowed to escape justice. "They are known and they should be punished just the same as those who will be sitting in the dock today," she said. "They [the defendants] had no reasons of their own for killing ... they were carrying out an order."