An Outcry After Ukraine's Former Prime Minister Is Sentenced to Jail

Western officials say Yulia Tymoshenko's trial was all about politics

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A Ukrainian court sentenced former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko to seven years in prison on Tuesday for criminally exceeding her powers when she inked a ten-year natural gas deal with Russia in 2009, in what Tymoshenko's supporters and Western officials are calling a show trial. The European Union is warning that the sentence threatens Kiev's bid for E.U. membership and integration, and Tymoshenko and her lawyers say they'll appeal the ruling in local courts and the European Court of Human Rights. Observers cite three main reasons why they think the case is politically motivated.

  • Political Crackdown: The BBC explains that in 2010 Ukrainian President Viktor F. Yanukovich, a former Soviet apparatchik, narrowly defeated Tymoshenko, a leader of the 2004 pro-democracy, Western-leaning Orange Revolution, and that he may be trying to sideline the country's top opposition leader ahead of parliamentary elections next year. Notably, the court banned Tymoshenko today from assuming political office for three years after the completion of her prison term. This isn't the first time she's faced legal action. Tymoshenko spent several weeks in prison in 2001 on charges of document forgery and tax evasion that were later dropped, and faces two pending cases from last year relating to the sale of carbon credits and Opel Combo cars. The defiant Tymoshenko, who has been in jail for more than two months on charges of contempt of court, has denounced her current trial as a "political lynching."

  • Implausible Charges: According to the BBC, Tymoshenko is charged with signing the gas deal without cabinet approval and paying too high a price for the import contract with Russian energy giant Gazprom, costing the state gas company Naftohaz $186 million (the court wants Tymoshenko to pay back that steep sum). New School University's Nina Khrushcheva explains that the charges against Tymoshenko for profiting from the gas contract "stem from a criminal code that goes back to Khrushchev’s time as the U.S.S.R.'s leader." But critics like Amnesty International's John Dalhuisen argue that Tymoshenko's actions don't amount to criminal offenses. "Poor political decisions of this kind--if that is what they were--should be punished by voters, not through courts," he declared today. The AP notes that Tuesday's ruling could still be overturned on appeal or by reclassifying the charges against Tymoshenko as an administrative rather than a criminal offense. The Guardian, however, says that even if the sentence is reversed to appease Western officials, Tymoshenko could still be barred from participating in the country's political life.

  • Questionable Proceedings: Catherine Ashton, the E.U.'s foreign affairs chief, said in a statement that today's verdict "comes after a trial which did not respect the international standards as regards fair, transparent and independent legal process" (Ukraine is a shaky democracy). The New School's Nina Khrushcheva elaborates:

In Tymoshenko's trial, however, many elements of Stalin’s grotesque legal charades are present: a near-hysterical prosecutor, a compliant judge, a ruler who washed his hands of the affair like Pontius Pilate. Tymoshenko may not be exactly squeaky clean--she made a fortune in the shady world of gas trading in the 1990s, for which she faced criminal charges in Russia. But then again, no one in post-Soviet politics is.

Update (1:02 pm): The White House just issued the following statement on Tymoshenko from the Office of the Press Secretary:

The United States is deeply disappointed with the conviction and sentencing of former Prime Minister of Ukraine Yulia Tymoshenko through a politically motivated prosecution.  The charges against Mrs. Tymoshenko and the conduct of her trial, as well as the prosecution of other opposition leaders and members of the preceding government, have raised serious concerns about the Government of Ukraine’s commitment to democracy and rule of law.
The United States strongly supports the Ukrainian peoples’ goal of becoming a democratic and prosperous European state, and remains dedicated to strengthening bilateral cooperation based on shared values and shared interests.  Ukraine, however, cannot reach this goal without redoubled efforts to protect and advance democracy and the rule of law for all its citizens.  For these reasons, the United States urges the release of Mrs. Tymoshenko and the other political leaders and former government officials, and believes that they should have an unrestricted ability to participate fully in political life, including next year’s parliamentary elections.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.