Kiev: Ukraine on Friday placed ex-prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko under arrest for contempt of court, in a dramatic twist to her stormy trial on charges of abuse of power.
Amid extraordinary scenes, Tymoshenko was driven away from court in a police van at snail`s pace up central Kiev`s main Kreshchatyk avenue, surrounded by hundreds of police on foot to keep away her angry supporters.
Judge Rodion Kireyev of Kiev`s Pechersk district court earlier approved a prosecution request to arrest Tymoshenko due to repeated order violations. Tymoshenko had until now been at liberty, but was obliged to stay in Kiev.
Tymoshenko was placed in handcuffs just outside the courtroom, after asking officials to ensure she was not seen by onlookers with them on, and led away by police to detention, a correspondent in court said.
It was not clear where she would be held but the Interfax news agency said she could go to the Lukyanovsky detention centre which is holding ex-allies including former interior minister Yuriy Lutsenko.
Her supporters shouted "Shame!" as she was led away and pro-Tymoshenko lawmakers were also involved in scuffles with police outside the entrance to the tiny courthouse.
"This is a completely unprecedented and illegal action which has no basis," said one of Tymoshenko`s lawyers Sergei Vlasenko.
Her top lieutenant Olexander Turchinov vowed to bring "hundreds, thousands" out on the streets "to fight not only for Yulia but for Ukraine", while other supporters vowed a tent protest from Monday on Kiev`s Maidan square.
One of the leaders of the pro-Western Orange Revolution in 2004, Tymoshenko narrowly lost to her old rival Viktor Yanukovych in Presidential Elections last year and has alleged the trial is a vendetta pursued by the new head of state.
But Yanukovych`s spokeswoman Darka Chepak told the Interfax-Ukraine news agency that his administration had no link to the trial.
According to the court decision, the reason for the arrest was "systematic violations by the accused, including impeding the questioning of witnesses”.
Ukrainian Prime Minister Mykola Azarov and Energy Minister Yuriy Boiko earlier made unexpected appearances as witnesses to back the prosecution`s case at the trial.
She had exasperated the court by repeatedly mocking the youthful judge on Twitter in the trial. But the immediate cause of her arrest appeared to be her description of Azarov in court as "an old, fully-certified, corrupt man”.
"Let`s go now to the motion on execution by shooting," joked Tymoshenko in response to the request by the prosecution for her arrest. "Give her (the prosecutor) the revolver."
Her arrest, which took most observers by surprise, could strain relations between Ukraine and the West. The United States has already warned Ukraine about the "selective" persecution of Tymoshenko and her allies.
Known in Ukraine as the "Iron Lady" after her heroine ex-British prime minister Margaret Thatcher, or sometimes as just "Vona" ("She"), Tymoshenko was briefly imprisoned in 2001 on forgery charges that were eventually quashed.
The current charges carry a sentence of between seven and 10 years in prison. But even if she escapes jail, any guilty verdict would disqualify her from parliamentary polls next year and the next Presidential Elections in 2015.
Tymoshenko is accused of sustaining a loss to Ukraine`s budget of 1.5 billion hryvnias (USD 190 million) when she signed a new energy contract with Russia after a brief interruption of gas deliveries in 2009.
Tymoshenko signed the contracts with Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and Azarov said he had personally asked the Russian strongman how Moscow could have signed a deal that was so disadvantageous for its neighbour.
"He replied that he did not understand the reasons himself and it would be better to ask the Ukrainian officials who were supposed to be representing the interests of Ukraine," Azarov said.
He added that the current government was looking at how to revise the contracts.