KIEV (Reuters) - A Ukrainian high court rules on Wednesday on an appeal by jailed ex-prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko against her conviction for abuse of office, with few commentators expecting a judgment that will free her and improve ties with the West.
The seven-year prison term handed to Tymoshenko in October has been condemned as political persecution by Western leaders and blocked strategic agreements with the European Union on political association and a free-trade zone.
But despite months of chiding by the EU and the United States, which see Tymoshenko as a victim of selective justice, President Viktor Yanukovich, her political nemesis, has refused to act to secure her release.
In tough remarks last Friday, Yanukovich said he would not negotiate integration with the EU at the price of allowing it to interfere in her case.
Commentators expect a court ruling that is likely to complicate ties with the West as the former Soviet republic approaches an October 28 legislative election in which its democratic credentials will come under the scrutiny of international monitors.
Yanukovich’s majority Party of the Regions goes into that election with the government highly unpopular over reforms that have increased taxes on small businesses and raised retirement ages.
Many critics say the exclusion of Tymoshenko — by far the most vibrant opposition figure — from heading the list of unified opposition candidates means the election can be neither free nor fair.
The abuse of office conviction relates to a gas deal that Tymoshenko, 51, brokered with Russia in 2009 when she was prime minister. The Yanukovich government says the agreement was reckless and saddled Ukraine with an enormous price for strategic supplies of gas which is taking a toll on the heavily stressed economy.
Ukrainian state prosecutors have urged the court to uphold her conviction, saying Tymoshenko’s guilt was clearly established at her Kiev trial last year.
She has denied betraying the national interest. Her defense lawyers say negotiating the gas agreement with Russia was a political act which did not amount to criminal action.
In the current political climate, with fresh charges being piled up against Tymoshenko for alleged past misdeeds, no one is expecting a court ruling that will free her.
In a separate trial, which has been adjourned several times because of back trouble that has confined Tymoshenko to a state-run hospital, she is accused of embezzlement and tax evasion going back to alleged offences when she was in business in the 1990s.
Analysts say the court’s judges, in a judgment which is likely to take several hours to read, may simply reject her appeal on Wednesday.
Some say the judges may support in part some of the arguments of her defense counsel, but stop well short of a ruling that would free her.
“I think the court will partially satisfy the demands of Tymoshenko’s lawyers. This could be taken as a correction of certain previous mistakes, but, of course, no one will release Tymoshenko from jail,” said Mykhailo Pogrebynsky of the Kiev Centre for political research.
Lawyers for Tymoshenko pressed her case at the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg on Tuesday, arguing that her pre-trial detention had been unlawful and that she had been subjected to degrading treatment in prison.
“The only reason for her detention was to exclude her from Ukrainian political life and to prevent her running in the parliamentary elections,” her defense counsel, Serhiy Vlasenko, told judges.
Tymoshenko’s lawyers said she had been held in inhumane conditions — in permanently lit, unheated cells and tracked by surveillance cameras.
The former prime minister, known for her trademark braided hair, was a leader of the 2004 Orange Revolution protests against sleaze and cronyism in Ukraine that derailed Yanukovich’s first bid for the presidency.
She served two terms as prime minister under President Viktor Yushchenko, but the two fell out and their partnership dissolved into bickering and infighting.
She went on to lose narrowly to Yanukovich in a run-off for the presidency in February 2010 after a bitter campaign in which the sharp-tongued Tymoshenko heaped abuse on her opponent.
Additional reporting by Pavel Polityuk in Kiev and Gilbert Reilhac in Strasbourg; Editing by Andrew Roche and David Brunnstrom