Ukraine jails Tymoshenko for seven years

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A Ukrainian court on Tuesday jailed former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko for seven years over a 2009 gas deal with Russia, threatening its ambition to agree a first step to joining the European Union.

In acknowledgment of the potentially devastating consequences for Ukraine, President Viktor Yanukovych insisted that the decision was not final and that he understood the European Union's anxiety over the trial.

Amid emotional scenes in the packed court in central Kiev, judge Rodion Kireyev said Tymoshenko was guilty of exceeding her authority to force the state gas company to sign a 10 year contract for gas imports from Russia.

"The court rules that Y.V. Tymoshenko intentionally used her powers to criminal ends," Kireyev said in his judgement. "The court finds her guilty and sentences her to seven years in prison."

Tymoshenko, her hair plaited intricately around her head and wearing an immaculate beige dress, defiantly shouted "Glory to Ukraine!" to her supporters in the court, who proclaimed "Glory to the Heroes! in response.

"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 was later driven in a prison van back to the Lukyanovsky detention centre, where she has been held since August 5, to begin serving her sentence.

The European Union swiftly warned that the trial had endangered the chances of signing an Association Agreement with Ukraine, a key goal of Yanukovych which would mark a first step towards membership.

The trial "risks having profound implications for the EU-Ukraine bilateral relationship, including for the conclusion of the Association Agreement," EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said in a statement.

Since coming to power, Yanukovych had sought to confound critics who portrayed him as a pro-Kremlin relic from the USSR by setting EU integration as his main aim and snubbing an offer to join a customs union with Russia.

But Ashton warned that a full reassessment of the EU's ties with Kiev could be needed. "The EU is deeply disappointed with the verdict. The EU will reflect on its policies towards Ukraine," she said.

EU officials have repeatedly expressed exasperation that Tymoshenko was being tried in a case where no corruption was implied which would not have been brought to court in a European state.

The Russian foreign ministry meanwhile complained that it saw a "clear anti-Russian subtext" to the case.

But Yanukovych said that the court of appeal still lay ahead and also appeared to allude to moves to decriminalise the statute in the criminal code under which Tymoshenko was condemned.

"It has made the European Union anxious and we understand why this is so," he told reporters. "Today the court took its decision in the framework of the current criminal code. This is not the final decision," he said.

The former Orange Revolution leader was flanked by her husband Olexander and daughter Yevgenia, who comforted her clearly distressed mother as the verdict was given. Tymoshenko also stared gravely at material on her iPad.

The verdict was in line with the demand of prosecutors, who wanted a sentence of seven years. The judge also ruled that Tymoshenko would not be able to hold state posts for three years.

Kireyev said Tymoshenko sustained a loss to state gas firm Naftogaz of 1.5 billion hryvnia ($190 million) by agreeing the 10 year contract at terms overly advantageous to Moscow and ordered her to pay back the money in full herself.

"Only a dictatorship, where the rule of law does not apply, will convict a former premier for making a political decision," said leading Tymoshenko ally and former minister Grygoriy Nemyria.

Tymoshenko portrayed the trial as a historic fight to ensure Ukraine's future at the heart of Europe and said the case is a vendetta pursued by Yanukovych to eliminate her from politics after their tight tussle in 2010 presidential elections.

Hundreds of Tymoshenko supporters gathered outside the court in central Kiev in a tense standoff with security forces as the verdict was read out.

Similar numbers of elite Berkut anti-riot police kept watch over the protestors and a dozen of her supporters and topless protesters from the FEMEN feminist group were arrested.

Tymoshenko was jailed in August for contempt of court after she incessantly mocked the boyish Kireyev on Twitter messages sent from her iPad in the courthouse and has been in custody ever since.

The dramatic trial saw witness appearances from figures including Prime Minister Mykola Azarov, one of her sworn enemies, and ex-president Viktor Yushchenko, her former ally in the Orange Revolution who became a rival.

© 2011 AFP

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