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Ukrainian human rights

Roman Goncharenko / mllMay 1, 2013

The European Court of Human Rights says that the pre-trial detention of the former Ukrainian prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko was "arbitrary." But it said it couldn't find evidence of maltreatment in prison.

Image: picture alliance/Maximilian Schönherr

It looked as if he was running away: the representative of the Ukrainian government left the chamber at the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg stony-faced, refusing to answer questions. In a public session on Tuesday (30.04.2013) the court had found in favor of several of the complaints of former Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko against her current government.

It took just eight minutes for the president of the court Dean Spielmann to read the verdict, finding that the trial against Tymoshenko in 2011 had violated the European Human Rights Convention.

'Illegal and arbitrary'

The court found that "Tymoshenko's pre-trial detention had been arbitrary, that the lawfulness of her detention had not been properly reviewed and that she had no possibility to seek compensation for her unlawful deprivation of liberty." Ukraine had broken Articles 5 and 18 of the Convention, including the rights to liberty and security.

Dean Spielmann at the announcement of the verdict PATRICK HERTZOG/AFP/Getty Images)
The court had harsh words for the Ukrainian justice systemImage: Patrick Hertzog/AFP/Getty Images

Tymoshenko's lawyer Serhij Vlasenko expressed his satisfaction. "The highest legal authority in Europe has for the first time issued a legal assessment of the Tymoshenko trial," he said. He'd expected a favorable ruling, but the fact that the judges were unanimous on so many points had surprised him. He said the court had found that Tymoshenko's arrest was "illegal and arbitrary," and had made out "political motives for the prosecution." That meant, said Vlasenko, that the court had found in Tymoshenko's favor on the "two most important points."

Tymoshenko was arrested on August 5, 2011. Two and a half months later, a court in the capital Kyiv sentenced her to a fine and seven years in prison. It found that she had overstepped her authority as head of government when she signed a gas contract with Russia in 2009. The trial and the verdict led to a storm of international criticism.

Ukrainian legal system criticized

The details of the ruling makes it clear how critically the European judges saw the original trial. They said her indefinite pre-trial detention went against Article 5 of the Human Rights Convention, and they threw out the court's argument that the indefinite detention was justified by Tymoshenko's alleged obstruction of the legal process.

Supporters of jailed former Ukrainian Prime Minister and opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko take part in a rally in Kiev February 25, 2013. REUTERS/Gleb Garanich
Tymoshenko still enjoys strong support in UkraineImage: Reuters

The court also criticized the passivity of Ukrainian courts when confronted with Tymoshenko's complaints: they merely stated that an appeal would not be possible. That meant that her right to a speedy examination of the legality of her imprisonment had been denied her.

Tymoshenko's claims that the legal system in Ukraine was political motivated were only backed indirectly by the court. But they came to the conclusion that her detention "had mainly served to punish her for a lack of respect for the court." She had not been imprisoned in order to ensure that she would appear before the court, "but for other reasons."

Complaint over prison conditions rejected

The court found that Tymoshenko's human rights had not been abused in regard to her complaints about her prison conditions. Lack of daylight, poor water quality, and lack of heating might have been problematic for her, but they weren't serious. The court also rejected her complaint about 24-hour video surveillance because she had not exhausted the Ukrainian legal system before turning to Strasbourg.

The judges also said that they had not been able to determine for sure whether she had been maltreated when she was transferred to a hospital in April 2012. Tymoshenko had refused medical examination by the Ukrainian court at the time.

Unlikely to be released

The ruling is not final - either side can appeal within three months, in which case the matter would go to a larger chamber of the court. Tymoshenko's lawyer  called for her immediate release, but this remains unlikely, since Tymoshenko is currently facing trial in Ukraine for further offenses, including murder.