PRAGUE The husband of Ukraine's jailed opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko has sought asylum in the Czech Republic as Ukrainian authorities step up pressure on her family, her party said.
Former Prime Minister Tymoshenko was sentenced in October to seven years in prison for abuse of office in what the United States and the European Union denounced as a politically-motivated trial.
The prosecution of Tymoshenko and her former team has strained relations between President Viktor Yanukovich's government and the West.
The asylum request from her husband, Oleksander Tymoshenko, 51, was confirmed on Friday by Czech Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg following a report in the Czech newspaper Pravo.
"During a break in the government meeting I asked the interior minister whether this was true ... and he said yes," he told Czech radio.
In Kiev, Tymoshenko's party issued a statement saying her whole family circle was now under pressure from the Yanukovich government and Oleksander Tymoshenko had sought asylum abroad so that her persecutors would have less leverage over her.
"This step by Oleksander Tymoshenko is in response to amoral attempts to pressure and torment Yulia Tymoshenko by persecuting her loved ones and family," the party said. A defense lawyer for Tymoshenko said that the couple's daughter, 31-year-old Yevgenia, had no plans yet to follow her father.
The Czech Republic, part of the former Soviet bloc until the 1989 "Velvet Revolution," has a policy of supporting opposition in countries that have patchy human rights records, including Cuba and Belarus, a legacy of former President Vaclav Havel.
The asylum request will be the second high-profile application in the past year in the Czech Republic, an EU member, after it gave refuge to a Tymoshenko ally, Bohdan Danylyshynin, early 2011.
A government source told Reuters that Tymoshenko's request had been made at the end of last year. "There has been no decision yet," the source said.
OUT OF PUBLIC EYE
Oleksander Tymoshenko, who has kept a low profile during his wife's roller-coaster political career, is part owner of a business registered in the Czech Republic.
The businessman, son of a former communist party official, was caught up in the investigation into the gas trading corporation United Energy Systems in 2000 during Leonid Kuchma's presidency.
He was detained in early 2001 on charges of embezzlement, which were later dropped. He made rare public appearances but attended their daughter's wedding, figured in a promotional film for his wife's 2010 presidential bid and was at Yulia's side in court when she was sentenced in October.
She was beaten narrowly by Yanukovich in a run-off vote in February 2010 after a vitriolic campaign which left them bitter enemies.
The EU, which had planned initial agreements on political association and free trade with Ukraine at a summit in December, put off the signing and cited Tymoshenko's case as an example of selective justice in the former Soviet republic.
Tymoshenko served as prime minister after helping to lead the 2004 "Orange Revolution" protests, which overturned an election victory for Yanukovich in his first bid for the presidency and which, for a while, cast him adrift politically.
She has denied exceeding her powers when forcing through a 2009 gas deal with Russia as prime minister. At the turn-of-the year the 51-year-old was moved from a police detention centre in Kiev to a prison in Kharkiv some 500 km (300 miles) away from the capital.
Her defense lawyer has complained that she is being kept in "inhuman conditions" under 24-hour camera surveillance with overhead lights permanently on.
(Additional reporting by Robert Mueller and Richard Balmforth in KIEV; Editing by Rosalind Russell)