Pukach [right] claims the 2000 death was an accident
Kiev – Arabstoday
A Ukrainian court on Tuesday sentenced a former senior official at the Interior Ministry to life in prison for strangling critical journalist Georgy Gongadze in 2000, the highest-profile crime in the country's post-Soviet history
Olexiy Pukach, the former head of external surveillance at the Ukrainian Interior Ministry, is the most senior figure to be jailed over the killing of the journalist who was vehemently opposed to then president Leonid Kuchma.
"The court came to a conclusion of the necessity for Pukach to serve punishment in the form of life imprisonment," said the verdict read out by the judge at the Ukrainian capital Kiev's Pechersky district court.
Gongadze was the founder of the Ukrainska Pravda news site that remains one of Ukraine's loudest opposition media voices. He went missing in September 2000, and in November of the same year his headless body was found in a forest outside the capital Kiev.
Pukach however maintained he was only partly responsible for the journalist's death.
Earlier in the day he said he had received an order to conduct surveillance on the investigative journalist and kill him from Yuriy Kravchenko, the Interior Minister at the time of the murder, an AFP correspondent reported from the court.
Kravchenko himself was found dead in 2005 in what was concluded to be a suicide but which critics of the investigation have long suspected to be the result of foul play.
He was found dead with two gunshot wounds to his head -- a double wound which struck many as being odd in a suicide -- just as he was about to be interrogated in the case in 2005.
Pukach told the court Gongadze died as a result of an accident. He said he had wanted to extract a confession from Gongadze that he was a spy and was strangling him with a belt when the belt slipped.
Pukach added Gongadze had told him he was collecting information for foreign embassies in Ukraine, alleging the journalist had expected to receive $400,000 for his efforts.
According to Valentyna Telychenko, lawyer for Gongadze's widow, Pukach has during the closed-door trial pointed to Kuchma as being among those who ordered Gongadze's death.
Gongadze's supporters had long argued that the murder had been ordered at a very high level.
They pointed to tapes recorded by a former bodyguard of Kuchma and made public in 2000 where voices alleged to be of the former President and his ex-chief of staff Volodymyr Lytvyn are heard speaking about eliminating Gongadze.
Kuchma, Ukraine's President between 1994 and 2005, and Lytvyn have always denied the charges.
In 2011, prosecutors charged Kuchma with involvement in the murder but the criminal case against him was later dropped.
Prosecutors had earlier asked life imprisonment for Pukach.