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Last updated: April 7, 2013 1:26 pm
Ukraine’s president early on Sunday pardoned two opposition politicians, partially defusing a stand-off with the EU over allegedly politically motivated prosecutions that have jeopardised closer relations with the 27-nation bloc.
But there was no immediate sign that Viktor Yanukovich would fully appease EU leaders by also releasing his fiercest opponent, jailed opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko.
Yury Lutsenko and Heorhy Filipchuk, the two politicians pardoned on Sunday, served as interior and environmental ministers in Ms Tymoshenko’s 2007-10 government.
Mr Lutsenko was immediately released, officials said. Just last week a high court rejected his appeal against a four-year sentence on charges of abuse of office. Mr Filipchuk was freed last year after his sentence was suspended by a judge.
Hours after Mr Yanukovich’s office announced the pardons, thousands of opposition protesters gathered in downtown Kiev for a pre-planned protest. Addressing the crowd, heavyweight boxing champion turned opposition leader Vitali Klitschko said: “We will fight to free Yulia Tymoshenko and others that are today behind bars . . . so that there are no more political prisoners in our country.”
Jorge Zukoski, president of the American Chamber of Commerce in Ukraine, said many business people who had been nervous about Ukraine’s future had welcomed the pardons. “It is perceived as a concrete step by senior policy makers towards implementing European values at a time when there is uncertainty in regards to the ultimate path Ukraine will take regarding geopolitical alignment,” Mr Zukoski said.
Their pardons were immediately welcomed by EU officials. “At last . . . I welcome very much President Yanukovich’s decision to pardon Lutsenko and Filipchuk as a first but important step to dealing with selective justice,” EU enlargement commissioner Stefan Fuele said via Twitter.
The pardons come weeks after EU leaders set a May deadline for Mr Yanukovich to demonstrate progress in ending politically motivated trials and reversing a broader rollback on democracy that has transpired since he narrowly beat Ms Tymoshenko in a 2010 presidential contest. They warned that failure would rule out Kiev’s chances of signing a landmark association and trade agreements at an autumn summit.
Mr Yanukovich has repeatedly declared signing of the agreements as a top priority, part of the nation’s strategic EU integration choice. But he continues to feel the strong eastward pull of Moscow, which is keen to keep Kiev within its orbit. In return for joining a Moscow-led customs union including other former Soviet republics, Moscow has promised lower prices for natural gas that Ukraine depends heavily upon to fuel its ailing and inefficient economy.
Attention will now concentrate on Ms Tymoshenko’s fate. The charismatic politician is recognised internationally as co-leader of the 2004 Orange Revolution that stripped Mr Yanukovich of his first shot at the presidency.
Hopes for her release are now pinned on an appeal to the Strasbourg-based European Court of Human Rights. It is expected in the coming months to rule on the fairness of her 2011 conviction and 7-year imprisonment for exceeding authority while brokering a 2009 natural gas supply agreement with Russia.
Mr Yanukovich claims the deal set onerous import prices, costing Kiev billions of dollars annually. Earlier this year, he suggested that Ms Tymoshenko, who earned a fortune during the 1990s trading in gas, should reimburse these losses. She steadfastly proclaims her innocence, accusing Mr Yanukovich of orchestrating a witch-hunt to sideline her from politics.
Despite western condemnation, Ms Tymoshenko faces further trials and investigations. She is currently on trial for allegedly financing the 1996 contract killing of businessman Yevhen Shcherban.
The hearings have been marred by controversial and contradictory testimony. Last week billionaire Serhiy Taruta, Mr Shcherban’s former partner, gave testimony that appeared to clear Ms Tymoshenko of motivation and involvement in the killing.
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