KIEV Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich stirred up a storm over his jailed rival Yulia Tymoshenko by linking her to a 16-year-old murder case and indicating he was unmoved by a boycott of Euro 2012 soccer matches by Western governments.
Tymoshenko, who is serving a seven-year sentence for alleged abuse-of-office when prime minister, has dismissed any link with the killing of Yevhen Shcherban as "absurd", and her supporters on Wednesday accused the president of acting like a dictator.
The prosecution and conviction of Tymoshenko has led to a boycott of Euro 2012 matches in Ukraine by some European politicians who say her trial was politically motivated and smacks of "selective justice".
Ukraine is jointly hosting the European soccer championship with Poland throughout June and will stage the final in the capital Kiev on July 1.
Yanukovich's tough words linking Tymoshenko to the 1996 killing of Shcherban, a powerful businessman in eastern Ukraine, suggested he was ready to ride out the diplomatic protests and would not bow to pressure to release her even while the country was acting host to Europe's biggest soccer tournament.
Yanukovich, in an interview this week, said: "Those violations and crimes that were carried out by participants of various criminal cases, they were carried out with the participation of Tymoshenko ... The current authorities didn't invent it. It all happened."
Asked if this included Shcherban's murder, he replied: "Including that. There were motives."
In a separate interview with Interfax news agency, Yanukovich said: "If the court proves Tymoshenko was involved in the murder of Shcherban, which the press is writing a lot about now, the case could take a new twist. But, I repeat, this (decision) is the prerogative of the court and nobody else's."
"Linking me to the Shcherban case is absurd," Tymoshenko said in a statement in April. "I believe that people well understand how poorly this case holds together, who benefits from it and how absurd it is," she said.
Her party accused Yanukovich of playing the dictator.
"This is a new step in the evolution of a dictator. Yanukovich has assumed the functions of the investigation and the courts. The next step will be for Yanukovich to play a direct role in interrogating Yulia Tymoshenko and torturing her," Batkivshchyna (Fatherland) said in statement.
An appeal by Tymoshenko against her conviction for abuse-of-office is due to be heard on June 26. Another court is due to resume hearing another charge against her of tax evasion and embezzlement the day before.
HAIL OF BULLETS
Shcherban died in a hail of bullets as he stepped from a plane in the eastern city of Donetsk. The attackers, disguised as airport mechanics, also killed his wife and several bystanders.
His killing followed several other murders in Donetsk, including a football stadium bombing that killed the owner of Shakhtar Donetsk club, and led to a realignment of political and business alliances in the key steel- and coal-producing region.
Back then, both Tymoshenko and Yanukovich were big players in a turbulent region which seethed with intrigue and where fortunes were made and lost in murky dealings ranging from sales of state assets to protection rackets, extortion and theft.
Backing his president, Prime Minister Mykola Azarov said that after Shcherban had been removed, the company Tymoshenko headed, Unified Energy Systems of Ukraine, moved onto the scene and made big profits by selling Russian gas at a mark-up price to local companies.
"So this person (Tymoshenko) is very controversial and those who want to make a symbol of a fighter for democracy out of her must first get to grips with the facts," Azarov told Reuters in an interview.
He, too, shrugged off the effect of the boycott.
"I would not advise anyone to speak to Ukraine with the language of threats, boycott, demarches. This will not bring anything positive to the development of our relations," he said.
"If they have separate policies based on their convictions and subjective information and decide not to come to the Euros, then it is their personal affair. It will in no way detract from the occasion, or harm its atmosphere," he said.
Last month, general prosecutor Viktor Pshonka said Tymoshenko, 51, was being treated as a material witness in the Shcherban case and investigators were trawling through evidence in the case, including new testimony from the dead man's son.
Ruslan Shcherban was 19 at the time and survived the attack by hiding under a car, but he has said recently he has evidence implicating Tymoshenko.
(Editing by Andrew Heavens)