KIEV (Reuters) - A Ukrainian court on Tuesday sentenced former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko to seven years in prison for abuse of office in relation to a 2009 gas deal with Russia that she brokered, a case regarded widely in the West as politically orchestrated.
The United States, Russia and the European Union reacted sharply to the verdict and the sentence, the maximum sought by state prosecutors.
The White House said in a statement it was “deeply disappointed” about the verdict and had “serious concerns” about Kiev’s commitment to democracy.
Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, speaking on a visit to Beijing, said it could jeopardize energy relations between the two former Soviet states, while the foreign ministry said it had detected an “obvious anti-Russian subtext” in the outcome.
The Tymoshenko affair seems certain to slow the Kiev government’s drive for European integration, a declared foreign policy priority for President Viktor Yanukovich.
In Brussels, EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said the bloc was “deeply disappointed” by the verdict in the trial that smacked of “selective” justice.
“The EU will reflect on its policies toward Ukraine,” she said in a statement on behalf of the EU, an apparent allusion to a planned association agreement that would have led to a Ukrainian-EU free trade zone.
Tymoshenko’s supporters say the trial was part of Yanukovich’s plans to eliminate her as his only real opposition. If she ends up serving a long prison term, she will be unable to contest a parliamentary election next year or run again for president in 2015.
Judge Rodion Kireyev handed down the seven-year sentence at the end of a three-month trial that threw a spotlight on a 10-year contract with Russia, signed by the charismatic opposition leader when she was prime minister.
The 2009 agreement between the state energy firm Naftogaz and Russia’s gas giant Gazprom ended a pricing dispute between Ukraine and Russia which had led to disruptions of gas supplies to some EU countries. It was greeted with relief by Europe at the time.
But the government under Yanukovich, who beat Tymoshenko in a fight for the presidency in February 2010 and forced her out as prime minister, says the deal saddled Ukraine with an exorbitant price for Russian gas.
Taking the line argued by the prosecution, the judge said Tymoshenko had exceeded her authority “for criminal ends” by railroading Naftogaz into signing the agreement.
In addition to the jail sentence, he imposed a fine of 1.5 billion hryvnias ($188 million) which he said was the estimated loss caused to Naftogaz by her actions.
“The court has ... found Tymoshenko guilty ... and sentenced her to a prison term of seven years,” he said.
Justifying the seven-year sentence, he said he had not found any “extenuating circumstances” to reduce the prison term nor any signs of remorse from Tymoshenko.
Her lawyers said they would appeal.
Tymoshenko, who denied any wrongdoing, has said the trial was a “lynching” by Yanukovich and by those whom she describes as the “criminal oligarchy” backing him.
For Tymoshenko, the style-conscious heroine of the 2004 popular “Orange Revolution” that doomed Yanukovich’s first bid for the presidency, her jailing was the latest chapter in a rollercoaster political career of highs and lows.
Once known as the “gas princess” because of her involvement in post-Soviet Ukraine’s gas industry in the mid-1990s, she was charged with forgery and gas smuggling in 2001 under then President Leonid Kuchma.
She spent a month in the Luky‘anivska detention center -- in the same cell where she has been held during her trial -- before being cleared.
After helping propel Viktor Yushchenko to the presidency in 2005, she twice served as his prime minister. But policy differences and personality clashes ruined the relationship between the two former allies.
With her trademark peasant-style hairbraid, the slightly-built Tymoshenko has cultivated an image as a no-nonsense firebrand and enjoys almost iconic status in some parts of Ukraine. Flanked by her daughter, Yevhenia, and her husband, Oleksander, she smiled faintly as sentence was passed.
She rose to her feet as the judge delivered the final sentences of his judgment on Tuesday and denounced Yanukovich’s “authoritarian regime” and the absence of justice in Ukraine.
She compared her trial to the purges of Soviet dictator Josef Stalin. “The year 1937 has returned to Ukraine with this verdict and the repression of citizens,” she said.
She was quickly driven away in a police van after police carved a cordon through thousands of her supporters outside the courtroom.
EU diplomats had urged Yanukovich to use his powers to “decriminalize” the charge against her -- reclassifying it as an administrative rather than an criminal offence -- to allow her to go free. There was no sign of a move in this direction when the trial resumed.
Yanukovich later offered a hint that this might still be on the cards. Referring to her likely recourse to the Appeals Court, he was quoted by Interfax news agency as saying: “It goes without saying that the decision (the court) will take and within what legislative framework it will take its decision -- this will have great significance.”
The trial, which most commentators agree has been a public relations disaster for Yanukovich, has now complicated relations with Ukraine’s two main trading partners, east and west.
Foreign affairs lawmakers at the European Parliament sharply criticized the verdict on Tuesday and some called for a suspension of talks with Kiev during an exchange of views with Ukrainian Foreign Minister Kostyantyn Gryshchenko.
A trade sub-committee also postponed a vote on its recommendations for the talks, a move that will effectively delay the process. EU officials had said last month they hoped the trade deal with Ukraine could be initialed by December.
Though Russia has always rejected Ukrainian suggestions that the 2009 deal was flawed, it has recently sounded more sympathetic to Kiev’s call for the contract to be reviewed and talks on its terms have been taking place.
Russia has struck a much softer tone toward Kiev since 2010 and the beginning of the term of current President Viktor Yanukovich, who has been seen as closer to Moscow.
Additional reporting by David Brunnstrom in Brussels and Gleb Bryanski in Beijing; Reporting by Pavel Polityuk and Olzhas Auyezov; Writing By Richard Balmforth; Editing by Mark Heinrich