Free Tymoshenko, drop charges

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Aug. 7, 2011, 2:46 p.m. | Editorial — by Editorial

When heavyweight boxing champion Vitali Klitschko, the Russian Federation and numerous other governments are all saying the same thing – that the Aug. 5 arrest of ex-Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko appears to be unjustified and that the charges against her smack of political persecution – it’s a clear signal to Ukrainian authorities to reverse their misguided ways.

Before President Viktor Yanukovych makes a complete fool of himself on the international stage, he should break off his Crimean vacation and issue two orders right away: Release Tymoshenko from jail and drop all the criminal charges against her.

Then Yanukovych - who has monopolized political power and has tremendous influence over all branches of government - should publicly rebuke the judge who, overnight on Aug 7, issued an order banning peaceful demonstrations. Such a ruling clearly tramples on the basic rights guaranteed by Ukraine’s constitution.

As officials from the European Union, US and beyond say, the issue is not about liking or not liking Tymoshenko, who now faces contempt-of-court charges in addition to her ongoing trial on charges of abusing her authority as prime minister in reaching a 2009 gas deal with Russia. Testimony resumes in the trial on Aug. 8.

The issues today are much bigger than the fate of one flawed, but courageous politician who has tirelessly called attention to the alleged pilfering of the nation by those in power. At stake is Ukraine’s future as a democracy, the future of fair trials and the constitutional right to hold peaceful demonstrations.

Despite the administration’s contention that the courts and judges are independent and cannot be influenced politically, everyone knows that is not the case. In fact, the opposite is true. Politicians, most of all Yanukovych's administration, control the courts. The Ukrainian system of appointing and removing judges is a case study in the formation of kangaroo courts.

The trial against Tymoshenko has been one more exhibit in this sad spectacle of injustice. About two weeks into the month-long trial, the court banned televised coverage of the proceedings. We suspect the order came because Tymoshenko was doing a good job of showing the silliness of the charges against her.

The accusations have never made much sense – that she, as prime minister illegally reached a 2009 natural gas supply contract with Russia to end a three-week crisis that threatened to freeze Europe in the dead of winter.. Any violations Tymoshenko committed seem more procedural than criminal, although she should have made all details of the agreement public at the time.

Where were the other leaders then? Ex-President Viktor Yushchenko was, as we know now from trial testimony and other sources, playing an obstructionist role. Yushchenko stands accused of sabotaging a gas agreement with lower import prices that Tymoshenko's government had nearly signed late in 2008, and of lobbying the interests of RosUkrEnergo, the controversial gas trading intermediary that for years made billions of dollars from energy deals among Ukraine, Russia and Central Asia. Yanukovych, then firing his own political darts from opposition, has long been aligned with RosUkrEnergo’s interests.

Moreover, the judge presiding over the Tymoshenko case has denied her requests to call key witnesses, such as state energy monopoly Naftogaz's auditor, Ernst & Young, and members of her government. The judge has also not given her defense attorneys adequate time to prepare.

Add it all up and Judge Rodion Kireyev’s rulings signal that a railroaded guilty verdict is ahead, one that would make Tymoshenko ineligible as a convicted felon to challenge Yanukovych and the Party of Regions in future elections. Just in case these spurious charges don’t pan out, however, prosecutors are busily lining up new ones to fall back on.

It was welcome to see Klitschko, the heavyweight boxing champion, come out so swiftly and forcefully in Tymoshenko’s defense. He has vast popularity that cuts across political lines. His support should help shift public opinion. Klitschko cut short his training in Austria for a Sept. 10 title defense to return to Ukraine.

“When I learned what had happened in Ukraine, I stopped training for the fight and returned to Kyiv. As far as I understand, a real battle for democratic values is unfolding here – in Ukraine. I cannot be an observer in this situation,” Vitali wrote on his blog in Ukrainska Pravda. “Tymoshenko ended up behind bars on the eve of Ukraine’s independence.”

The Russian Federation has its own twisted motives for siding with Tymoshenko. The Kremlin wants the 2009 gas agreements seen as legitimate because it doesn’t want state-controlled Gazprom to give in to the Yanukovych administration’s demands for lower prices. But truly Russian leaders are playing their usual game of wanting to see a Ukrainian president weak and isolated.

Western governments are almost unanimous in viewing what is happening to Tymoshenko as unjustified, if not entirely farcical.

The Yanukovych administration has, since taking power on Feb. 25, 2010, consistently eroded the democratic underpinnings of the nation – from stacking courts, to unconstitutionally changing the constitution and holding a flawed regional election. The courts, legislature and much of the media are now subservient to Yanukovych. Tymoshenko represents the strongest remaining example of independent political thought and action, and now she is on the ropes.

Ukraine's Western friends have taken a stand through statements, but need to increase pressure on Yanukovych in the coming days, weeks and months.

But the real question, which will start to be answered when the trial resumes on Aug. 8, is: What are Ukrainians going to do about it? Stand up and fight for democracy? Or let these injustices spread until authoritarianism is as firmly rooted in Ukraine as it is in Belarus and Russia today?

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