A Ukrainian court yesterday opened new criminal hearings against the jailed opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko in a case set to further dent the ex-Soviet nation’s EU membership hopes.
Tymoshenko faces tax evasion and embezzlement charges relating to her time as head of a state power provider in the 1990s.
Already serving one jail sentence, for which she is not due for release until 2018, she could be jailed for another 12 years if convicted on these new counts.
However, it is not clear if the terms would be served consecutively or simultaneously, though she is appealing the first conviction.
Ukraine’s decision to pursue tax evasion and embezzlement charges in a deal that dates back to the 1990s has infuriated EU leaders. At the original trial, the flamboyant 51-year-old Orange Revolution leader was jailed for a gas deal she brokered with Moscow in 2009, while serving as the country’s Kremlin-friendly prime minister.
Any new conviction would substantially complicate efforts by her supporters and top EU officials to win her release from a women’s prison in the eastern Ukrainian city of Kharkiv, where the new case is being heard.
The EU has delayed signing a partnership agreement with Ukraine that would move it closer to full membership in the bloc.
EU officials have already condemned the original prosecution and jailing of Tymoshenko and her top ministers, which they do not believe met international standards.
Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, Tymoshenko’s political enemy, has objected that Ukraine is only pursuing EU calls to root out corruption and that he has no right to intervene in the case.
In the new trial, Tymoshenko stands accused of having embezzled US$405.5 million of funds in cooperation with another government member while heading the state-owned United Energy Systems of Ukraine power provider.
She is accused of having reassigned the massive debt — owed by her company to the Russian defense ministry — to the Ukrainian budget and then transferring the sum to herself and her government ally Pavlo Lazarenko.
Tymoshenko was arrested on related charges in 2001, but was quickly released and cleared. Lazarenko is now in US detention after being convicted in 2006 of embezzlement and money laundering.