KIEV (Reuters) - Denmark and the Netherlands increased pressure on Ukraine to improve its human rights record at the Euro 2012 soccer finals on Saturday by meeting victims of alleged police torture in the city where opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko is jailed.
The two European Union states’ sports ministers held three hours of talks on police brutality, homophobia and the need for an independent judiciary in the eastern city of Kharkiv before their nations met in a Group B match.
“Our role in the European Union is to push for change by the politicians in the country. The people I have spoken to today show that you can be randomly arrested and tortured,” Dutch Health and Sports Minister Edith Schippers told Reuters.
“That is not a sign of a civil law state that wants to be part of the EU,” she said by telephone after the talks.
Participants said the ministers did not discuss Tymoshenko’s case, which has prompted politicians from several EU states to boycott matches being held in Ukraine during the month-long tournament which it is co-hosting with Poland.
But the talks put the spotlight on issues that could further damage Ukraine’s image and dent President Viktor Yanukovich’s hopes that hosting the finals will boost its chances of joining the 27-state EU, Europe’s elite democratic club.
Government officials were not immediately available for comment but are already reeling from bad publicity over Tymoshenko’s case and allegations of racism in the build-up to the tournament gathering the pick of Europe’s national teams.
Germany, France and Britain have led the boycott over the treatment of Tymoshenko, a former prime minister sentenced to seven years in prison last October for abuse of office.
She is now being treated in a Kharkiv clinic for chronic back problems and says she was physically manhandled by prison guards in April, a charge which prison authorities deny.
Despite the unofficial boycott, Danish Sports and Culture Minister Uffe Elbaek said he could best help human rights activists in the former Communist state by visiting them.
“I feel I can help active human rights organizations in Ukraine by meeting them,” Ukrainian media quoted Elbaek as saying before his visit.
“The second reason (for the visit) is that sport should not be mixed with political conflicts and politics should not be mixed with sport.”
Tanya Mazur, Amnesty International’s Ukraine director, said the talks covered police brutality, corruption and impunity, and that she had asked for help to ensure an independent body is set up as planned to investigate alleged police crimes.
She was accompanied at the talks by two victims of alleged police torture, and said the ministers had also discussed draft legislation in Ukraine that would make it illegal to be openly gay or lesbian in public.
“It was a really good opportunity for us because the Ukrainian government is very sensitive to any statements from the EU. We hope there will be follow-up,” Mazur said by telephone after the talks.
“There’s no understanding here of LBGT (lesbian, bisexual, gay, transgender) in society, government and parliament. It’s really not good,” she said.
Ukrainian officials have said the pressure over Tymoshenko will have no impact on how the authorities treat her case.
Supporters of the former prime minister who have been outside the Kharkiv clinic since she was taken there say they will stay as long as she is there.
“We are with her, heart and soul, and she is with us,” said 60-year-old nurse Olga Darvits.
Teacher Lyudmila Rostovskaya, also 60, said: “We support her and love her, and hope she will be our president.”
Additional reporting by Gilbert Kreijger in Amsterdam; Editing by Jon Hemming