Ukraine's jailing of former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko was a politically motivated violation of her rights, Europe's human rights court ruled Tuesday. A Ukrainian ambassador stormed out of the courthouse in response to the ruling in a case that has strained the former Soviet state's ties with Europe and the United States.
An architect of Ukraine's 2004 pro-democracy Orange Revolution who was instantly recognizable by her crown of braids, Tymoshenko was sentenced to seven years in prison in October 2011 after being convicted of exceeding her powers as premier while negotiating a gas contract with Russia.
Tymoshenko has said her jailing was intended to keep her out of politics and that her rights were violated when she was first jailed in August 2011. The court agreed unanimously that her jailing was "for other reasons" than those permissible by law.
"It was not a criminal prosecution. There was another aim of that prosecution and everyone knows that that was a politically motivated prosecution," said Serhiy Vlasenko, Tymoshenko's lawyer. He said the court found "the prosecution of Mrs. Tymoshenko in Ukraine had nothing to do with the law, had nothing to do with democratic standards, had nothing to do with a criminal prosecution."
It's unclear how a decision by the European court would be legally binding in Ukraine.
In Kiev, the government representative with the European Court of Human Rights, Nazar Kulchitsky, told the Interfax news agency that the Ukrainian government needs time to study the ruling but suggested the government might appeal it. Both sides have three months to do so.
Tymoshenko and her allies — including Vlasenko, who was expelled from parliament — charged that her jailing was masterminded by President Viktor Yanukovych, who is afraid of the country's top opposition leader and is intent on keeping her locked in jail, out of politics and out of last year's parliamentary elections and out of the 2015 presidential election.
Yanukovych has said that this was a legal matter he cannot interfere with. Over the weekend, a presidential pardon commission said it would not consider a motion to pardon Tymoshenko while other legal cases against her are ongoing — including some that could take years to resolve.
The dilemma faced by the West is whether to bring Ukraine closer into its fold, despite Tymoshenko's case, or risk seeing the country move toward Russia.
Vlasenko called for Tymoshenko to be freed immediately, saying that was the only way to restore her rights.
"She is under the 24-hour a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year, psychological pressure," he said, of her current state.
If the decision is upheld on appeal, Tymoshenko's legal team could petition Ukraine's Supreme Court to annul Tymoshenko's conviction and seven-year sentence on the grounds that it was issued by the same judge who ordered her arrested. Andriy Kozlov, an independent legal expert, said that while Ukraine's Supreme Court would be required to review Tymoshenko's case, it won't necessarily be obliged to overrule the decision by the local courts.
In Kiev, a handful of Tymoshenko supporters in a tent camp set up in the center of the Ukrainian capital outside the courthouse where she was convicted, reacted with joy, but said they did not believe the government would release her.
"He (Yanukovych) has always been afraid of her," said Oleksiy Karaulny, 63, a retired carpenter in Kiev, one of the activists at the Tymoshenko tent camp who listened to the radio to hear the ruling. "Of course we are happy. And it's not only me who his happy, it's all the 12 million (people) who voted for her are also happy. They know that truth will come, that justice will prevail."
Associated Press writer Maria Danilova contributed from Kiev, Ukraine.
Lori Hinnant can be reached at https://twitter.com/lhinnant