April 3, 2013 8:08 pm

Jailed Ukrainian politician loses appeal

A Ukrainian high court on Wednesday upheld the conviction of jailed opposition politician Yury Lutsenko, stoking tensions with the EU over alleged political persecutions and jeopardising Kiev’s chances of forging closer relations with the bloc.

Wednesday’s ruling by Kiev’s High Specialised Court marks the end of Mr Lutsenko’s opportunities to appeal domestically. He was convicted in February 2012 for granting favours to a subordinate while serving as interior minister in 2007-2010.

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EU and US leaders have in recent years repeatedly warned Viktor Yanukovich, Kiev’s president since 2010, to end politically motivated trials against his opponents, namely Mr Lutsenko and jailed ally Yulia Tymoshenko. The former prime minister and Orange Revolution leader was in 2011 sentenced to seven years in prison on abuse of office charges.

Despite repeatedly declaring integration efforts with the EU as a top priority, Mr Yanukovich – whose relations with Russia are also strained over energy prices – has so far failed to address EU concerns over both cases.

The court’s rejection of Mr Lutsenko’s appeal comes weeks after EU leaders set a May deadline for Mr Yanukovich to demonstrate progress in both cases and show signs of reversing a broader rollback on democracy under his rule. EU leaders warned that failure to do so would rule out Kiev’s chances of signing a landmark association and trade agreements at an autumn summit.

Commenting after Wednesday’s court ruling, a western diplomat in Kiev said: “This is something that was unfortunately expected from this leadership and justice system in Ukraine. It confirms that this was from the beginning a selective use of the justice system against opposition leaders.”

“And this, in turn, confirms that Ukrainian authorities are not listening to the preconditions set by the EU for the signing of the association and free trade agreement this autumn,” the diplomat added.

Mr Lutsenko’s lawyers said they now pinned hopes for clearing their client through an appeal to the European Court of Human Rights. The Strasbourg-based court is expected in the coming months to rule on the fairness of Ms Tymoshenko’s 2011 conviction on abuse of office charges.

Both Ms Tymoshenko and Mr Lutsenko have repeatedly denied wrongdoing, accusing Mr Yanukovich of sideling them from politics through politically motivated show trials.

Speaking with journalists last month, Mr Yanukovich hinted that he could pardon Mr Lutsenko. The 48-year-old’s health has deteriorated in jail.

But he has shown no willingness to release of Ms Tymoshenko, 51, his main rival. She is currently serving a seven-year prison term for brokering a 2009 natural gas supply agreement with Russia that Mr Yanukovich has criticised for setting onerous import prices.

Ukrainian prosecutors appointed by Mr Yanukovich continue to push ahead with other charges against Ms Tymoshenko. She is currently on trial for allegedly financing the 1996 contract killing of businessman Yevhen Shcherban.

The case, criticised by the west, has been marred by controversial and contradictory testimony. In trial testimony given this week, billionaire Serhiy Taruta, a former partner of Mr Shcherban, cleared Ms Tymoshenko of involvement in the killing.

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