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KIEV (Reuters) - Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich stirred up a storm over his jailed rival Yulia Tymoshenko on Wednesday 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.
But, just hours ahead of a match involving Germany, its foreign minister urged soccer fans not to forget the jailed former prime minister as they gathered to watch their country play the Netherlands.
"I hope that amid all the enthusiasm focused on the leather ball, the destiny of Yulia Tymoshenko and of all other Ukrainian opposition activists sitting in jail will not be forgotten," the minister, Guido Westerwelle, said.
Tymoshenko is serving a seven-year sentence in the Ukrainian city of Kharkiv where the Germany-Netherlands match was being played on Wednesday night.
Ukraine is jointly hosting the European soccer championship with Poland throughout June and will stage the final in the capital Kiev on July 1.
The prosecution and conviction of Tymoshenko on abuse of office charges has led to a boycott of the matches in Ukraine by some European politicians - including those of Germany - who say Tymoshenko's trial was politically motivated and smacks of "selective justice".
Westerwelle's words jarred with statements by the Ukrainian leadership linking Tymoshenko also to the killing of Yevhen Shcherban, a prominent businessman and politician, in 1996.
Yanukovich made his charge in an interview this week and told Interfax news agency on Wednesday: "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."
Tymoshenko has dismissed any link with Shcherban's killing as "absurd", and her supporters on Wednesday accused Yanukovich of acting like a dictator.
Yanukovich's tough words linking Tymoshenko to the murder suggested he was ready to ride out the diplomatic outcry and would not bow to pressure to release her even while the country was acting host to Europe's biggest soccer tournament.
Prime Minister Mykola Azarov also linked Tymoshenko to the crime, saying the company she headed, Unified Energy Systems of Ukraine, moved onto the scene in Ukraine's Donbass region after Shcherban's death 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," he told Reuters.
"Linking me to the Shcherban case is absurd," Tymoshenko said in a statement in April. "I believe that people will 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 while prime minister 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.
Shcherban died in a hail of bullets as he stepped from a plane in the 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.
The match between Germany and the Netherlands begins at 1445 EDT on Wednesday at a stadium in Kharkiv not far from a hospital where Tymoshenko is being treated for back trouble. Her lawyer said she would be able to hear the roar of the fans from her guarded room.
Germany has been particularly critical of the Tymoshenko case and has sent doctors to Kharkiv to help in the treatment.
Her daughter, Yevgenia, made a personal appeal to soccer fans. "Fans must not forget that they are watching soccer matches in a country where political opponents like my mother are held in prison under brutal conditions," she told Germany's top-selling daily Bild.
"People should use the game in Kharkiv to send a clear message to Ukrainian President Yanukovich: 'We want freedom for all political prisoners!', she said.
Additional reporting by Berlin staff; Writing by Richard Balmforth; Editing by Rosalind Russell