Former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko has been convicted of exceeding her powers while in office by ordering state energy firm Naftogaz to sign a gas deal with Russia in 2009, a judge ruled on Tuesday.
Judge Rodion Kireyev, reading the verdict for more than four hours, also ordered Tymoshenko imprisoned for seven years and said that she will be required to reimburse the state $188 million in losses caused by the gas contract she negotiated with Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.
He also banned her from seeking elected office for her period of imprisonment, an order that appears to disqualify her from participation in the 2012 parliamentary and 2015 presidential elections. Tymoshenko's side has said she would appeal a guilty verdict. The judge also ordered her to perform three years of public service work in prison.
The verdict has further strained ties between Ukraine and the West, as it appears that President Viktor Yanukovych has completely ignored strong international pressure to drop the charges and free Tymoshenko. The European Union issued a statement that it was "deeply disappointed" by the verdict.
Kireyev said the opposition leader’s actions while she was prime minister had led to a loss for Naftogaz of 1.5 billion hryvnias ($188 million). "In January 2009, Tymoshenko, exercising the duties of prime minister … used her powers for criminal ends and, acting deliberately, carried out actions … which led to heavy consequences," he said.
After Kireyev read the guilty verdict and sentence, at nearly 1 p.m., Tymoshenko stood up and said she would continue to fight for justice and urged her supporters to do the same for the sake of the nation. "The year 1937 has returned to Ukraine," Tymoshenko said in the courtroom, referring to the Soviet era of Josef Stalin. "Fight for your rights. This is a difficult period for Ukraine."
Tymoshenko, the main political opponent of Yanukovych, was found guilty in connection with a bilateral agreement that ended the three-week 2009 gas shutoff by Russia over a price dispute. The Yanukovych leadership says the 10-year contract has saddled the former Soviet republic with an exorbitant price for vital supplies of Russian gas.
But the EU, one of Ukraine‘s main trading partners along with Russia, has told Yanukovych that landmark economic agreements will be in jeopardy if she is imprisoned. Yanukovych narrowly beat the charismatic Tymoshenko for the presidency in February 2010, and has not been riding much higher than her in recent polls. She still commands the second largest faction in the national parliament.
Though Russia has rejected charges by the Yanukovych leadership that the deal was dishonestly negotiated, it is in talks with Ukraine on its terms. The Kyiv government says it hopes a new contract will be tied up by the end of the year.
Tymoshenko, 50, who was flanked by her daughter and husband in court, bristled defiance from the outset of the hearing.
"You know very well that the sentence is not being pronounced by Judge Kireyev but by President Viktor Yanukovych," she told journalists before the reading of the judgment. "Whatever the sentence pronounced, my struggle will continue. This sentence, written by Yanukovich, will not change anything in my life or in my struggle."
She also said earlier: "Nobody, not Yanukovych, not Kireyev, can humiliate my honest name. I have worked and will continue to work for Ukraine’s sake."
As Kireyev was leaving the courtroom, Tymoshenko’s husband Oleksandr yelled out that his time would also come for a similar verdict. One Tymoshenko supporter shouted "Shame!"
The small courtroom was packed with up to a hundred Ukrainian and foreign journalists. In such a hot atmosphere, the judge was literally sweating in front of cameras. He took four short breaks during the reading to ventilate the room. Many did not dare to go outside during these breaks to get a breath of fresh air for the fear of not being let back in.
Like on the streets, the heavily equipped police feared massive protests, so officers heavily protected the yard around the court and filled its corridors.
“[Judge] Kireyev is no one here,” Tymoshenko told the reporters in the court pointing at Yanukovych as the person who made the verdict against her. The ex-premier also said that by convicting her Yanukovych is “consciously hindering the association agreement with the EU.”
Supporters, opponents, police
About 2,000 Tymoshenko supporters, hundreds of riot-conrol police and crowds of anti-Tymoshenko demonstrators who turned out at the behest of the ruling Regions Party gathered outside the court for the final curtain to come down on the trial.
The outcome of the Tymoshenko trial, which opened in late June and has kept political tension high throughout summer, could determine the speed of Ukraine‘s integration into the European mainstream.
On Monday the EU’s foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton told reporters: "We are not optimistic about this trial. Our impression remains (that it amounts to) selective application of justice."
Tymoshenko, who has been held in police detention for contempt of court since Aug. 5, has denied any wrongdoing in brokering the 2009 deal which ended a pricing dispute with Russia that had led to disruptions in gas supplies to parts of the EU.
When the judge late last month called an adjournment until Tuesday it was widely seen as a strategic pause to give Yanukovych and his advisers time to consider their options in the face of the Western criticism.
He has maintained her prosecution is a matter for the courts.
EU diplomats have urged Yanukovich to use his powers to "decriminalize" the charge against her — reclassifying it as an administrative rather than an criminal offence — to allow her to go free. But the verdict showed there was still no sign of a move in this direction.
Her supporters say Yanukovich wants to neutralise her as a political force before next year’s parliamentary election. She and Yanukovych have been at each other’s throats since 2004 when Tymoshenko used her PR savvy and rhetoric as a leader of the 2004 Orange Revolution to doom his first bid for presidency.
She went on to hold the post of prime minister twice under former President Viktor Yushchenko who gave evidence against her at her trial.
The election runoff between Yanukovich and Tymoshenko was a particularly bitter affair and she refused to recognise his victory for weeks.
She stepped down finally as prime minister, but has continued to heap scorn on his leadership and on the wealthy industrialists who support him.