News24

Tensions rise in Ukraine

2011-08-07 14:16

Kiev -Tensions rose in Ukraine on Sunday between the authorities and supporters of imprisoned opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko after a court said an indefinite protest demanding her release was illegal.

Some 100 members of the elite Berkut anti-riot police unit were in position on the edge of the tented camp set up by Tymoshenko supporters in central Kiev as rumours spread that the authorities could forcibly remove the protest.

In a tense stand-off, around 100 supporters of the ruling Regions Party also arrived on the scene to stage a counter action, an AFP correspondent said.

"We are going to stay despite the attempts by the authorities to remove us. We are not scared, we just want our children to be able to live in a normal country," said Tymoshenko supporter Galina Zanko, 58.

The protest on the capital's central Kreshchatyk avenue had been ruled illegal overnight by the Kiev district administrative court. However despite the tension there was no sign of police moving in to disperse the action.

Organised meeting

Sergei Vlasenko, a pro-Tymoshenko MP and part of her legal team, told the Interfax-Ukraine news agency the opposition would also argue the encampment was not a protest "but an organised meeting with voters."

A Kiev court on Friday ordered the arrest of the former prime minister over a month into her trial on charges of abuse in power which she claims is part of a political vendetta pursued by her rival, President Viktor Yanukovych.

Tymoshenko is accused of causing a loss to Ukraine's budget of 1.5 billion hryvnias ($190m) when she signed a new energy contract with Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin after a brief interruption of gas deliveries in 2009.

Yanukovych became president last year after defeating Tymoshenko and other leaders of the 2004 pro-Western Orange Revolution in bitterly-contested elections.

Since coming to power, Yanukovych has sought to dispel Western fears over his pro-Kremlin leanings by setting a clear aim of EU integration. But the arrest has raised alarm among Ukraine's partners.

Concern

Echoing comments from the European Union, the United States said her arrest "raised concerns internationally about the application of the rule of law in Ukraine and further contributes to the appearance of politically-motivated prosecutions."

Tymoshenko also found heavyweight support from Ukrainian boxing star Vitali Klitschko who announced he halted training for an upcoming fight to take part in a "battle for democratic values" following her arrest.

Top figures in Tymoshenko's party, including her right-hand-man Olexander Turchinov, have called for mass protests next week to stage a repeat of the Orange uprising, though analysts are sceptical they can muster big numbers.

The trial of Tymoshenko, who spent a second night in the Lukyanovsky detention centre in Kiev, is due to resume at 07:00 on Monday in what promises to be a highly-charged hearing.

Tymoshenko was arrested for contempt of court after she described Ukrainian Prime Minister Mykola Azarov as a "corrupt old man" during a witness appearance and also sent an incessant stream of messages on Twitter mocking the judge.

She already has experience of jail after briefly being imprisoned in 2001 under former president Leonid Kuchma on forgery charges that were eventually quashed.

The current charges carry a sentence of between seven and 10 years in prison. Even a suspended sentence would disqualify her from parliamentary polls next year and the next presidential elections in 2015.

Yanukovych - whose Regions Party unsuccessfully tried to forge a political coalition with Tymoshenko in 2009 - also spent time in jail under the USSR in 1967 and again in 1970 on convictions of robbery and assault.