* Ex-officer convicted for murder of journalist
* Gongadze was sharp critic of then-president Kuchma
* Headless body was found after his abduction in 2000
* His murder led to huge street protests
By Serhiy Karazy
KIEV, Jan 29 (Reuters) - A former Ukrainian police officer was jailed for life on Tuesday for the 2000 murder of an opposition journalist, but he implied in court that other officials including ex-President Leonid Kuchma were equally guilty of the crime.
Police General Oleksiy Pukach is the fourth person to be sentenced over the grisly murder of Georgiy Gongadze, a 31-year-old campaigning editor who wrote of political corruption and crime at a time when the authorities in the former Soviet republic kept a tight rein on the media.
His headless body was found in woods a month and a half after he was abducted in the centre of the capital Kiev, sparking huge street demonstrations which marked a turning point in Kuchma’s 10-year rule.
Pukach was on the run for four years before being arrested in July 2009 - a year after a Ukrainian court handed out jail terms of 12 and 13 years to three other former police officers for their part in Gongadze’s killing.
“The court has come to the conclusion that Pukach should be given a life sentence,” according to the wording of a lengthy verdict read out to a Kiev court on Tuesday.
When a judge asked Pukach, held inside a metal cage in the courtroom, if he had understood the sentence, he replied: “I’ll understand it better when Kuchma and (then presidential chief of staff Volodymyr) Lytvyn are seated here alongside me.”
Gongadze’s killing seriously shook Kuchma’s rule and helped stoke popular anger against sleaze and corruption, leading to the 2004 “Orange Revolution” street protests which overturned the old order.
Kuchma was tainted by alleged secret tape recordings by his former bodyguard, Mykola Melnychenko, which were said to have been made between 1998 and 2000. One of these appeared to indicate that Kuchma had told officials to “deal with” Gongadze.
In March 2011 the general prosecutor’s office opened a criminal case against Kuchma, who still lives in Kiev, on suspicion of giving illegal orders to senior interior ministry officials leading to the journalist’s murder.
But a Kiev court later that year ruled the prosecutor’s case against Kuchma as unlawful.
Gongadze’s family and the political opposition have always maintained that the murder was the subject of a cover-up to protect people in high places and it seemed unlikely that Tuesday’s ruling would lay the matter to rest.
Valentyna Telychenko, a lawyer for Gongadze’s widow, told journalists that she would appeal against Tuesday’s ruling, not because she doubted Pukach’s guilt but because the court had failed to determine the motives for the killing.
Pukach, according to the verdict, had said he had acted on orders from a former interior minister, Yuri Kravchenko. Kravchenko was found dead with gunshot wounds in 2005, in what was officially described as a suicide, as he was about to be questioned.
An official from the state prosecutor’s office told journalists outside the courtroom that in interrogation Pukach had said he had been carrying out orders when he killed Gongadze “but did not go into details”.
“Pukach says only that he carried out an order but he did not go into details over his motive - that’s his right,” the official, quoted by Interfax news agency, said.
Pukach admitted strangling the journalist with a belt. But he said he had been trying to extract information from Gongadze and had not intended to kill him. (Writing by Richard Balmforth; Editing by Sonya Hepinstall)