Is Kuchma running scared?

Leonid Kuchma, former President of Ukraine, former Communist Party boss, and former head of Yuzhnoye Design Bureau (Ukraine’s largest rocket building plant, based in Dnipropetrovsk) may be running scared. No doubt the lawyer fees are stacking up, but given his son-in-law, Victor Pinchuk, is valued at $1.5bn, the cost of the legal fees are probably the least of his worries.

His latest attempt at evading justice and came today when his lawyers sent a complaint to Pechersky Court of Kiev against a decision by the prosecutor general dated March 1, 2005, about the closure of a criminal case against former officer of the State Security Guard of Ukraine, Major Mykola Melnychenko.

State Prosecutors know Melnychenko (Kuchma’s former bodyguard) bugged Kuchma’s office and handed over tapes which purportedly have alleged conversations involving Kuchma regarding the sale of radar systems to Saddam Hussein and ordering the director of Ukraine’s intelligence agency to “take care” of journalist Georgiy Gongadze, who had been following the government’s connections to illegal arms sales and corruption, among other allegations. Gongadze’s body was later found mutilated and decapitated. His head having never been found.

“Leonid Kuchma’s lawyers, Serhiy Ulyanov and Viktor Petrunenko, are asking for this decision to be ruled illegal, and they demand its cancellation,” reads the lawyers’ statement, which was sent to Interfax-Ukraine. His lawyers claimed that “because [the Prosecutor General’s Office] believed that he acted at that time in a state of extreme necessity to allegedly prevent potential damage to public interests, and therefore his actions were not criminal.”

“[Kuchma’s] complaint states that the Prosecutor General’s Office had no legal grounds to recognize that Melnychenko committed his actions in a state of extreme necessity, and therefore it had no legal grounds to closing the criminal case” under the Criminal Code of Ukraine, Kuchma’s lawyers said.

The scandal — which became know as Kuchmagate — led to attempts by the opposition to impeach the president. The moves failed and Kuchma sacked the prosecutor-general when he sought to investigate claims that the killing was linked to the president’s inner circle.

The General Prosecutor of Ukraine‘s Office cancelled its resolution to deny opening of criminal cases against Kuchma and other politicians within the Gongadze-case on October 9, 2010. On March 22nd, 2011, Ukraine opened an official investigation into the murder of Gongadze and two days later Ukrainian prosecutors charged Leonid Kuchma with involvement in the murder.

One of the taped conversations is alleged to be about the Saint Petersburg Immobilien und Beteiligungs AG, a company suspected of facilitating Saint Petersburg mobsters, Colombian drug lords, and transcontinental money laundering. Vladimir Putin was one of the company’s advisers from 1992 until he became President of Russia in 2000. On the tapes, Kuchma discusses Putin’s European-wide operation to get possession of all documents that could be used as evidence.

Kuchma’s enemies also want an investigation into allegations that he used his power to help his businessman son-in-law Viktor Pinchuk amass a fortune estimated at more than £1 billion. Critics allege that Pinchuk, who heads Interpipe, a steel pipe-making empire and was also a member of parliament, won state privatisation contracts at a fraction of their market value thanks to his family ties.

In June 2004, Kryvorizhstal, one of the country’s largest state steel plants, was sold to a consortium backed by Pinchuk and Rinat Akhmetov, Ukraine’s richest man — who is close to Yanukovych — for £418m. A rival US-British consortium offered £770m and pledged to invest £617m in the plant.

Kuchma and his son-in-law have also been accused of interfering in the presidential election process. Just before the polls held in 2004, both Pinchuk and Viktor Medvedchuk, Kuchma’s chief of staff, who was thought to be the brains behind Yanukovych’s first campaign, were put on a visa watch list by the US State Department, along with other presidential allies, after claims that they were planning to meddle in the poll.

“The main reason why the elections were rigged in Yanukovych’s favour is Kuchma’s fear he could end up in jail if Yushchenko becomes president. He is terrified, and rightly so,” said Grigori Omelchenko, head of a parliamentary inquiry into Gongadze’s murder.

Kuchma had asked two days ago to the Ukrainian Prosecutor General Viktor Pshonka for permission to go to Israel on June 21-23.

Kuchma intends to visit Israel to take part in the third presidential conference Facing Tomorrow, which is organized by Hebrew University of Jerusalem under the aegis of Israeli President Shimon Peres, Kuchma’s press service has reported.

“In his invitation, Shimon Peres said he will be honoured if Ukraine’s second president Leonid Kuchma joins the conference,” the press service had reported.

Kuchma has already spoken in the first two conferences held in 2008 and 2009, but has given his written undertaking not to leave Ukraine because of the criminal case opened against him. The investigator earlier allowed Kuchma a trip to France. But it could be viewed that given his current exposure, his trip to Israel could be more along the lines of a fugitive flight, rather than an elder statesman’s visit.

The then Russian president, Vladimir Putin, who met Kuchma in Moscow, is believed to have offered him a haven in Russia should the opposition seek to have him investigated. One wonders if that offer still stands today, or if Putin has washed his hands of his old friend and ally now that he may be seeking a third term in office in the next Russian Presidential Elections

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