Ukrainian opposition leader gets seven years


THE EUROPEAN Union and Russia have sharply criticised Ukraine after a Kiev court sentenced opposition leader and former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko to seven years in jail.

After a trial that she called a “political lynching” ordered by President Viktor Yanukovich, Ms Tymoshenko was found guilty of abusing her power as premier “for criminal ends” by signing a 2009 gas deal with Russia that prosecutors said was ruinously expensive for Ukraine.

As judge Rodion Kireyev read out his verdict, Ms Tymoshenko turned away from him and addressed the media in the packed courtroom, while hundreds of supporters jostled with riot police in the street outside.

“We will fight and defend my good name in the European court. We have to be strong and defend Ukraine from this authoritarianism. Today the court showed that the justice system has been crushed. Fight, be together, be strong,” she said.

Shouting “Glory to Ukraine!” to her allies inside the court, she compared her country under Mr Yanukovich to the Soviet Union during Josef Stalin’s purges.

“The year 1937 has returned to Ukraine with this verdict and all the repression of citizens. As for me, be sure that I will not stop my fight even for a minute. I will always be with you as long as it is necessary,” Ms Tymoshenko said.

Western states had urged Mr Yanukovich to ensure that Ms Tymoshenko (50) was not sent to jail in a case that they said appeared to be politically motivated. As part of her sentence, Ms Tymoshenko was banned from holding government office for three years after her release from jail, and fined some €140 million.

The verdict casts doubt on plans for the EU to sign an association agreement and form a free-trade zone with Ukraine this year.

“The EU will reflect on its policies towards Ukraine,” said EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton.

“The way the Ukrainian authorities will generally respect universal values and rule of law, and specifically how they will handle these cases, risks having profound implications for the EU-Ukraine bilateral relationship.”

Russia also raised concerns about the verdict, particularly over how it could strengthen Ukrainian efforts to renegotiate the 2009 gas deal.

Prime Minister Vladimir Putin said he did not understand why Ms Tymoshenko had been jailed for seven years, while Russia’s foreign ministry said the affair had a “clear anti-Russian subtext” and insisted that the gas deal had been agreed in strict accordance with Russian and Ukrainian law. The ministry ended its statement with the stark words: “Agreements should be fulfilled.”

In 2004, Mr Yanukovich declared victory in a rigged presidential election, only to see Ms Tymoshenko and her allies overturn that result and force new elections through massive street protests that became known as the Orange Revolution.

Mr Yanukovich fought back to narrowly beat Ms Tymoshenko in last year’s presidential election.

He hinted yesterday that a prison term was not an inevitability for his most popular and tenacious opponent, and that relevant laws may have been reclassified when her appeal is heard.

“It goes without saying that the decision will take and within what legislative framework it will take its decision – this will have great significance,” Mr Yanukovich said.

Lithuania’s foreign minister Audronius Azubalis, chairperson-in-office for the 56-state Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, said it is “now vital that the appeals process be conducted openly and fairly and in line with the highest standards to restore the trust of the Ukrainian people and the international community.”

Yuloa Tymoshenko: 'Gas princess' in braided crown

ULIA TYMOSHENKO, the former prime minister of Ukraine, is an instantly recognisable figure with her peasant-style hairband, formed by tying her long blond hair into two plaits and wrapping them across her crown.

She is 50, and shot to world prominence when she helped to lead the so-called Orange Revolution, a series of street protests in Kiev in 2004-05 that doomed President Viktor Yanukovich’s first bid for power. She enthrals her supporters with fiery speeches in which she portrays herself as Ukraine’s saviour from corruption and criminality. Mr Yanukovich, who defeated her in a presidential election in February 2010 and is her political arch-rival, has been the object of her invective.

Her early involvement in the gas industry in the 1990s, after Ukraine had gained its independence with the break-up of the Soviet Union, earned her the nickname “gas princess”. She entered parliament in 1996 and was made a deputy prime minister in charge of the energy sector in 2000 by the new premier, Viktor Yushchenko. Since losing to Mr Yanukovich in her bid for the presidency, she has been out of parliament.

She fell out with Mr Yushchenko and was sacked in September 2005 after less than eight months in office. She was later briefly reconciled with him and had a second spell as prime minister.

In January 2009, as prime minister, Ms Tymoshenko brokered the 10-year gas deal with her Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, that later landed her in court. – (Reut