Kiev: Ukraine`s ex-president Leonid Kuchma faced his first questioning on Wednesday as a suspect in the murder of a journalist, insisting he was ready to go "through hell" to prove his innocence.
Prosecutors the day before announced they had opened a criminal probe against Kuchma on suspicion of giving orders that led to the brutal killing of Georgy Gongadze in 2000, Ukraine`s most notorious post-Soviet crime.
"To be honest I am calm because I do not feel any guilt," Kuchma told reporters after arriving at the general prosecutors office in Kiev for his first questioning session.
"I am morally ready to go through all the tortures of hell to prove I am innocent. I want that only the truth remains in Ukrainian history about what I did do and what I did not do."
He left without speaking to reporters after about three hours.
The announcement by prosecutors caused a sensation in Ukraine, coming after a decade of pressure from Kuchma`s opponents for the 1994-2005 president to be brought to trial for the killing of the critical journalist.
Crucially, prosecutors for the first time ruled as admissible evidence tapes made public in 2000 where voices, including one alleged to be of Kuchma, evoked eliminating Gongadze.
The tapes -- allegedly recorded in Kuchma`s office by one of his bodyguards Mykola Melnichenko -- contain a voice resembling that of Kuchma suggesting to have Gongadze "kidnapped by Chechens".
Kuchma dismissed the tapes` value to the prosecution and argued that "nothing could have emerged" since he was last called in for questioning as a witness in the case.
"Besides the tapes -- which you understand perfectly well cannot be used as evidence, especially the way some people want to interpret them -- there is absolutely nothing else" new, Kuchma told reporters.
In another surprise development, Melnichenko himself appeared at the prosecutors’ office just after Kuchma, saying he was answering a summons.
"He started getting nervous the moment he saw me," Kuchma`s former bodyguard told the Interfax news agency.
"He was scared of our confrontation," said Melnichenko, adding that Kuchma immediately protested and was allowed to leave. The prosecutors’ office confirmed Kuchma had avoided confronting Melnichenko.
Gongadze, founder of the Ukrainska Pravda newssite, was kidnapped in September 2000 after leaving a friend`s apartment in Kiev and his headless body was later found outside the city. He was aged 31.
In September 2010, prosecutors had appeared to draw a line under the case by saying that former interior minister Yury Kravchenko -- who committed suicide in 2005 -- ordered the murder.
Given that Kravchenko took his evidence to the grave, the move prompted accusations from Gongadze`s family that the authorities were seeking to pin all the blame on a dead man to protect someone of greater importance.
The authorities are already holding in custody former Interior Ministry official Olexy Pukach, who was arrested in 2009 and confessed to personally strangling the journalist with his belt, then beheading him with an axe.
Journalist protection groups welcomed the criminal probe against Kuchma with the Committee to Protect Journalists saying "the long-overdue investigation" must be conducted "in an independent, transparent, and thorough manner".
Reporters Without Borders hailed the fact "that a leading figure is finally being investigated in connection with this case" but urged against it simply turning into a PR exercise to whitewash the ex-president.
"It would be completely intolerable if this new investigation were to lead into another dead end, or if it were to be carried out hastily with the sole aim of absolving former senior officials."