Ukraine’s jailing of former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko was politically motivated, the European Court of Human Rights ruled yesterday.
The decision is a blow to president Viktor Yanukovych, who has insisted that the case against his top opponent was not political.
The prosecution of Tymoshenko, the country’s most vocal opposition l eader, has strained the former Soviet state’s ties with the European Union and the United States.
The ruling put fresh pressure on Mr Yanukovych to ensure her release if he wants to sign a key co-operation agreement with Brussels later this year.
There was no comment from the government, other than a promise to closely analyse the ruling.
Tymoshenko, a heroine of Ukraine’s 2004 pro-democracy Orange Revolution who was instantly recognisable with her blonde braid wrapped around her head like a crown, was sentenced to seven years in prison in October 2011 after being convicted of exceeding her powers as premier while negotiating a gas contract with Russia.
The West has condemned the jailing and other legal cases against her as politically motivated and insisted on her release.
Tymoshenko has accused Mr Yanukovych of masterminding the legal campaign against her to keep her out of politics. She insists her rights were violated when she was first jailed in August 2011 during her trial on charges of contempt of court.
The Strasbourg-based court agreed unanimously that her jailing was “for other reasons” than those permissible by law.
In Kiev, Tymoshenko’s defence team called on Mr Yanukovych to honour the ruling and free her from jail soon.
Her daughter Eugenia said that the ruling will be like the “first ray of sunlight” for her mother, who is undergoing treatment for a spinal condition in a hospital ward where windows are shut and covered.
“The European court has recognised my mum as a political prisoner and now the authorities in Ukraine will no longer be able to deny this and deny the fact that she must be freed in the coming days or weeks,” she said. “Today is the first step toward her complete political rehabilitation and she will be freed soon. Soon, she will be completely cleared of all the false and absurd accusations.”
The Ukrainian government’s response to the ruling was muted. In Strasbourg, Ukraine’s permanent representative to the Council of Europe, Mykola Tochytskyi, stormed out of the court after the ruling was read out. In Kiev, the foreign ministry said it is not ready to comment until it scrutinises the ruling.
In the past, Mr Yanukovych has insisted that the Tymoshenko case is not political, that Ukrainian courts are independent and that he cannot interfere in the legal proceedings.
The European court ruling leaves Kiev to decide how to implement it. Last summer, the court passed a similar ruling regarding a top Tymoshenko ally, former interior minister Yuri Lutsenko, whose jailing was also condemned by the West as politically motivated.
It ruled that his initial arrest was also unlawful. While the Ukrainian government paid Mr Lutsenko compensation, as per the court ruling, he was released only in April after Mr Yanukovych pardoned him on humanitarian grounds, not based on the Strasbourg ruling.
Kiev-based political analyst Volodymyr Fesenko said that latest ruling was not legally binding for Kiev, because it concerns the conditions of Tymoshenko’s two-month-long arrest before her conviction and sentencing.
Tymoshenko is no longer under arrest and is serving out her seven-year-sentence, which she is also appealing at the European Court of Human Rights. It is unclear when a decision on that is expected.
In Kiev, Tymoshenko’s political allies and members of her party rushed to congratulate her and call on the government to ensure her release, but there was little jubilation on the streets of the Ukrainian capital, where people are largely disillusioned with politics.