Kiev: Ukraine`s former prime minister, Yulia Tymoshenko, went on trial on Friday in a case that has raised concerns in the West over the government`s commitment to democracy and the rule of law.
Tymoshenko, now a top opposition leader, has been charged with abuse of office in signing a deal with Moscow to buy Russian natural gas at prices investigators said were too high. She denies the charges, and describes them as a political plot by her rival, President Viktor Yanukovych, to keep her out of upcoming Parliamentary and Presidential Elections.
The United States and the European Union have condemned the cases against Tymoshenko and a number of her top allies as selective prosecution of political opponents.
Tymoshenko was greeted by about 1,000 supporters who gathered outside the court Friday with posters emblazoned "Hands off Tymoshenko!" Some supporters also packed into the stifling courtroom, shouting "Shame!" as the judge opened preliminary hearings in the case.
Tymoshenko, who carried an Orthodox icon and a prayer book into the courtroom, refused to stand up to answer the judge`s questions and then demanded that he be dismissed.
"I declare you a puppet of the presidential office," Tymoshenko said. "You don`t have the right to consider this case. You are fully integrated into a system of political repression directed by authorities."
Tymoshenko was the central figure in the 2004 mass protests dubbed Orange Revolution that threw out Yanukovych`s fraud-tainted Presidential Election victory and brought a pro-democracy regime to power. She became prime minister but Ukrainians grew frustrated over economic hardships, slow reforms and endless bickering in the Orange camp and she lost to Kremlin-friendly Yanukovych in the 2010 Presidential Election.
Many Tymoshenko allies also have faced official charges recently, which she describes as part of the government`s efforts to weaken the opposition. Her former economics minister, who faced corruption allegations over the reconstruction of Kiev`s airport, was granted political asylum in the Czech Republic in January. The former interior minister has been in jail for six months on charges that he defrauded the government when he hired a driver who was too old and paid him illegal bonuses.
David J Kramer, executive director of the Washington-based democracy watchdog Freedom House, said the case against Tymoshenko "suggests more an effort by the Prosecutor General`s office to find something, anything to go after her”.
"They don`t seem to be taking ... as aggressive an approach to others, including current government officials," he said.
Some observers believe Yanukovych seeks to discredit Tymoshenko and possibly prevent her from running in next year`s parliamentary vote and the 2015 Presidential Election as a convicted felon. Few think that Tymoshenko could be sentenced to prison, but observers point that a suspended sentence will also keep her out of elections.
"I think that it is aimed to make politics devoid of competition, as Yanukovych wants, to liquidate the opposition, to liquidate any dissent," Tymoshenko told reporters during a break in the court session.