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New Tymoshenko case is dreary déjà vu

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Nov. 5, 2013, 6:50 a.m. | Op-ed — by Halya Coynash

Demonstrator hold banners and flages depicting former Ukrainian prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko during an opposition rally "Rise up Ukraine!" in the center of Kiev on May 18, 2013. Protesters demanded to free jailed former Ukrainian prime minister and leader of the opposition Yulia Tymoshenko and others political prisoners.
© AFP

Halya Coynash

Halya Coynash is a member of the Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group

President Viktor Yanukovych's regime has yet again proved incapable of drawing any lessons from past mistakes.  A new attempt has been made to present imprisoned ex-Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko as a criminal embezzler by using an international company whose fat fee will doubtless be paid for by the Ukrainian taxpayer.

 The money involved in the legal suit was placed in US and Swiss accounts by former Prime Minister Pavlo Lazarenko ,whose US prison term for extortion and money laundering ended one year ago.  The US government is in an ongoing dispute regarding the ownership of around $260 million in assets gained through criminal activities.

Ukraine’s Ministry of Revenue and Duties has initiated legal proceedings to get its hands on that money.  Who has the right to it is for the relevant foreign courts to decide, and international lawyers are doubtless needed. 

Unfortunately, however, presentation of the legal proceedings both on state-controlled UTV-1, and by the legal firm itself, suggest different motivation.

The headline on UTV-1 was: “New case against Yulia Tymoshenko and Pavlo Lazarenko,” and stated that “the former prime ministers are among people suspected of embezzling $200 million.  Legal proceedings in the USA and Switzerland to in defence of Ukraine’s interests have been initiated by the Ministry of Revenue and Duties.”  It then goes on to cite “international law firm Lawrence Graham."

There is no explanation as to who suspects Tymoshenko of embezzling $200 million.  The USA has never expressed any wish to bring criminal proceedings against Tymoshenko and the money is in accounts under Lazarenko’s name, as the UTV-1 report even states at the end.

 Graham would appear to know more than the US authorities, or be less concerned about such niceties as the presumption of innocence and avoidance of defamatory insinuations.  Its report on Monday contains the following:

“The Ministry of Revenue and Duties of Ukraine has begun legal process in the United States of America and in Switzerland to protect the interests of the Ukraine State in relation to over $200 million, which is believed to have been misappropriated by persons including the two former Ukrainian prime ministers, Yulia Tymoshenko and Pavlo Lazarenko.  The unlawful actions of the individuals involved in the alleged misappropriation have already been in the past the subject of criminal investigations or proceedings in the USA, Switzerland and Ukraine.”

The phrasing here also avoids specifying who exactly believes the money to have been misappropriated by Tymoshenko.  On the other hand, the last sentence very clearly suggests that there have been unlawful actions.  It implies considerably more, with the impression inevitable that Tymoshenko, as well as Lazarenko, has faced criminal investigations or proceedings not only in Ukraine, but also in the US and Switzerland.  The text goes on in similar style, with the aim quite overtly being to push the image of the company as engaged in uncovering political corruption.

All of this is drearily familiar.  UTV-1 was actively used in trying to manipulate public opinion a day or two after Tymoshenko’s conviction.  While largely muffling western condemnation of the politically motivated trial and sentence, UTV-1followed Prime Minister Azarov and the law enforcement agencies in detailing alleged embezzlement of public funding.  The same coordination was seen on Monday with Party of the Regions MPs expressing concern that Tymoshenko should not be released to enjoy supposedly ill-gotten gains held in western banks.

Graham’s role is also predictable.  Ukraine’s leaders have already spent taxpayers’ money on Western experts commissioned, effectively, to justify Tymoshenko’s prosecution.  The US firm Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom LLP was controversially commissioned in April 2012 to assess the prosecution and reject allegations that it was politically motivated.  This is precisely what Ukraine’s Justice Ministry claimed it had done.  The same company was then employed for a fee of Hr 10.2 million without even a tender to answer additional questions from the European Court of Human Rights.  The latter, as we know, found that Tymoshenko’s rights had been violated.

Neither the reports of such commissioned “independent” experts, nor efforts and public funding spent on “enhancing Ukraine’s image” have persuaded the European Union or other Western governments that Tymoshenko’s trial and imprisonment are not politically motivated.  They are not about to now.  If the aim is to convince Ukrainians that Tymoshenko really is a criminal and that her release is an unreasonable whim by the EU, the attempt seems just as doomed.  If the EU-Ukraine association agreement is not signed, few Ukrainians will be in any doubt where the blame lies. 

Halya Coynash is a member of the Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group.

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