Ukrainian former prime minister, Yulia Tymoshenko (photo, from france24.com), has been sentenced to seven years in jail on Tuesday by a Kiev court for “exceeding her powers” in 2009 in sealing a gas deal with Russia.
The judge ruled that by ignoring a cabinet vote and pushing the country’s state energy firm Naftogaz into a deal with Russia’s Gazprom, Ms Tymoshenko had “used her powers for criminal ends”.
The verdict also bans her from political office for three years and orders her to pay back 1.5bn hrivnas ($186m), which the court said had been lost by Naftogaz as a result of the deal.
Ms Tymoshenko answered the verdict by comparing Ukraine to “the Stalinist regime of 1937” and urged her supporters “to continue fighting for democracy”.
The European Union has warned Ukraine of “profound implications” after this verdict.
The union will “reflect on its policies” towards Kiev, said EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, who has been negotiating a free-trade deal with Ukraine president Viktor Yanukovych. She also said that the trial “did not respect international standards”.
This deal was signed by Vladimir Putin, Russian prime minister and candidate for next year’s presidential election. He said he could not understand the court’s verdict and told Reuters news agency that “it is dangerous and counterproductive to cast the entire package of agreements into doubt”.
Earlier the ruling was described as a “clear anti-Russian subtext” by Russia’s foreign ministry.
The free-trade deal was due to begin in December, but the verdict of Ms Tymoshenko threatens to torpedo it, analysts said.
According to Ms Tymoshenko’s supporters, the trial was orchestrated by Mr Yanukovych in order to get rid of his bitter political rival.
Western governments and rights groups put pressure on the president to downgrade the charges against Ms Tymoshenko to administrative offences and not criminal.
After Tuesday’s verdict, which he said was not final, Mr Yanukovych said he understood the reaction to the “regrettable” case.
“There is the court of appeal ahead and what decision it will take and under which legislation has great importance,” he said.
The two ex-Soviet states have argued for a long time over transit fees and unpaid bills concerning Russia pipes gas to Western Europe across Ukrainian territory.
When the deal was made EU diplomats praised it, saying it ended a row with Russia over the price Kiev paid for gas.
Since 5 August Ms Tymoshenko has been in custody for contempt of court.
In 2004 she was the heroine of the Western-leaning Orange Revolution, the street protests which burst out following a fraudulent presidential election.
Soon afterwards she became the country’s prime minister but a few years later the reform movement stagnated.
Constant bickering between Ms Tymoshenko and her Orange allies blocked Ukraine while it was facing a deep economic crisis.
In the beginning of 2010 Mr Yanukovych became president and Ms Tymoshenko joined the opposition.
Former Ukraine president Viktor Yushchenko and some of her former Orange allies testified against Ms Tymoshenko.