March 22, 2016 / 5:37 PM / in 2 years

Murdered journalist buried in Ukraine 16 years after beheading

KIEV (Reuters) - An investigative journalist whose murder 16 years ago helped precipitate Ukraine’s Orange Revolution was buried in Kiev on Tuesday after a delay due to his mother’s unwillingness to accept his decapitated body was her son.

Orthodox priests stand next to a coffin containing the body of opposition journalist Georgiy Gongadze, who was killed in 2000, during a funeral ceremony near the Church of Mykola Naberezhny in Kiev, Ukraine, March 22, 2016. REUTERS/Valentyn Ogirenko

One of hundreds of mourners at Georgiy Gongadze’s funeral said its postponement, which persisted even after she died in 2013, was also motivated by unanswered questions over who ordered the killing and why.

Yevhen Hlibovytsky, a former journalist and close friend, fondly remembered a “reckless” journalist who exposed the wrongdoing of Ukraine’s ruling elite and repeatedly said he was willing to die for his country.

“He was a helluva reporter,” Hlibovytsky told Reuters. “He was one of the first reporters who went after the oligarchs,” he said, referring to politically connected businessmen who came to power in Ukraine, Russia and elsewhere after communism fell.

“That would drive them to be angry.”

A Georgian-born former soldier and the founder of the online newspaper Ukrayinska Pravda, Gongadze had been wounded twice during Georgia’s 1992-1993 war against separatists in Abkhazia, giving him an aura of invincibility, he said.

After his death, the Ukrainian authorities were only able to identify the decomposing corpse on the strength of a piece of shrapnel that had been lodged in his body since the war, he said.

The funeral took place amid growing disappointment that Ukraine’s leaders have not followed through on pledges after a second popular uprising two years ago to reform the country and tackle the corruption Gongadze spent his life exposing.

Hundreds of mourners queued to squeeze into the Orthodox green-and-white church to listen to the funeral mass.

Inside, his coffin was draped in the Ukrainian and Georgian flags, alongside candles and a portrait of him in national dress. His body was later carried outside and buried next to a large brown cross in the church garden, to the sound of dirges.

Hlibovytsky said Gongadze had been born with a twin who mysteriously disappeared from the hospital where he was born.

That made it even harder for his mother, who died in November 2013, to contemplate that her second child had also been lost when his body was found in a forest outside Kiev.

BETRAYING IDEALS

It is still unclear who ordered the killing, one of hundreds recorded by the International Federation of Journalists across the former Soviet Union since it collapsed in 1991.

The finger of suspicion has for years pointed at former President Leonid Kuchma, after the publication of a tape on which a voice sounding like his spoke about the need to deal with Gongadze.

Kuchma has denied wrongdoing and remains in public service as Ukraine’s representative in the Minsk peace process aimed at ending the conflict with pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine that broke out after Moscow annexed Crimea in 2014.

Charges were brought against him and later dropped for lack of evidence. Kuchma’s office declined to comment.

Gongadze’s killing led to mass protests against Kuchma’s government in 2001, paving the way for the Orange Revolution three years later against a rigged presidential election contested by Kuchma’s ally Viktor Yanukovich.

A court has ruled that the murder was carried out by a gang of policemen who beat up Gongadze and then killed him. Oleksiy Pukach, a senior police officer convicted in 2013, said they had accidentally killed Gongadze while strangling him with a belt, and decided to behead him afterwards.

Pukach said he had acted on orders from a former interior minister, Yuri Kravchenko. Kravchenko was found dead, shot twice in the head in 2005, in what was officially described as a suicide, as he was about to be questioned.

Additional reporting by Sergei Karazy and Andriy Perun; editing by Philippa Fletcher

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