Ukraine’s former prime minister sentenced to 7 years in jail

KIEV, Ukraine — Ukraine’s former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko on Tuesday was sentenced to seven years in prison on charges of abuse of office in signing a gas deal with Russia, a verdict immediately condemned by both the European Union and Russia as politically motivated.

Tymoshenko, the driving force of the 2004 pro-democracy Orange Revolution and now the nation’s top opposition leader, denounced the trial as rigged by President Viktor Yanukovych to get rid of a political opponent.

The case has galvanized the opposition. A crowd of several dozen angry Tymoshenko supporters clashed following the verdict with helmeted riot policed who flooded the city center, but they were quickly pushed away and it was unclear if the protests would last.

Judge Rodion Kireyev declared Tymoshenko, 50, guilty of exceeding her authority as premier when she signed a natural gas imports contract with Russia in 2009. He also banned her from occupying government posts for three years after the completion of her prison term and fined her 1.5 billion hryvna ($190 million or (euro) 140 million) for the damages her actions cost the state.

Tymoshenko, clad in a beige dress and wearing her trademark blond braid around her head, has called the trial a “lynching.” She appeared unfazed by the verdict and began addressing reporters in the courtroom without waiting for Kireyev to finish reading the lengthy ruling.

She said Yanukovych wrote the verdict himself and compared it to the show trials and horrific purges by Soviet dictator Josef Stalin.

“The year 1937 has returned to Ukraine with this verdict and all the repression of citizens,” she said. “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.”

“Nobody, not Yanukovych, not Kireyev, can humiliate my honest name. I have worked and will continue to work for Ukraine’s sake,” Tymoshenko told reporters earlier.

As Kireyev was leaving the courtroom, Tymoshenko’s husband Oleksandr yelled out that the judge would someday get a similar verdict. One Tymoshenko supporter shouted “Shame!”

Tymoshenko was taken back to jail in a detention van right after the verdict was announced.

The EU was quick to condemn the verdict as politically driven and urged the Ukrainian authorities to ensure a transparent and fair appeals process for Tymoshenko. A failure to do so would have “profound implications” for Ukraine-EU relations and could jeopardize the conclusion of a landmark association agreement, EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said in a statement.

That would be a major blow to Yanukovych who has lobbied for membership in the bloc.

Russia’s Prime Minister Vladimir Putin insisted that the deal he struck with Tymoshenko conformed to both Russian and Ukrainian law. “I don’t quite understand why she was sentenced to seven years,” he said on a trip to China, according to Russian news reports.

Tymoshenko said she would contest the ruling in the European Court of Human Rights and her lawyers said they would appeal the verdict in local courts.

Some analysts believe Tuesday’s decision could still be reversed, giving Tymoshenko the chance to walk free and still take part in elections next year. That could be done either on appeal or by decriminalizing the article under which she is being charged — something lawmakers loyal to Yanukovych have hinted they could try to do.

“A compromise is still possible,” said political analyst Oleksiy Haran. “She gets the guilty verdict and Yanukovych’s sense of revenge is satisfied, but then she is released and allowed to stand in elections.”

Yanukovych himself appeared to signal Tuesday that Tymoshenko’s case was not over yet and hinted that new legislation, adopted by the time the case is heard by an appeals court, could be of great importance.

The trial has helped unite Ukraine’ fractured opposition, but experts said the verdict was unlikely to draw the kinds of mass street protests seen during the Orange Revolution. As reforms stalled and economic hardships hit, many Ukrainians have become disillusioned with Orange leaders, including Tymoshenko, and with politics in general.

Tymoshenko helped lead the 2004 mass street protests against Yanukovych’s election victory that year. Those demonstrations drew hudreds of thousands to Kiev’s central square, the Maidan, setting the stage for the Supreme Court to overturn Yanukovych’s victory and call for a revote, which Tymoshenko’s ally, Viktor Yushchenko, won by a narrow margin.

Yanukovych staged a comeback, narrowly defeating Tymoshenko in a 2010 presidential vote amid the public disenchantment.

Valeriy Chaliy, a senior analyst with the Razumkov think tank, said that it was too early to make predictions on opposition protests, since Tymoshenko will be appealing the verdict.

“But the Maidan that took place in 2004 will not take place,” Chaliy said. If protests do take place this time around, they will be smaller, but more aggressive, he added.

Tymoshenko maintains that as prime minister she did not need any special permission to order the signing of the gas deal. She says her actions helped end a bitter pricing dispute between Moscow and Kiev, which had led to energy supply shortages across Europe.

Yanukovych’s government has insisted that the contract Tymoshenko signed should be renegotiated in favor of a lower price. Moscow has signaled it would only do so if Ukraine sacrifices a free-trade agreement with the EU in favor of a Moscow-led customs union.

Tymoshenko has been in jail for more than two months on charges of contempt of court. She spent several weeks in prison in 2001 on charges of document forgery and tax evasion, but the charges were later dropped.

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