Is Yulia Tymoshenko a political prisoner? She believes so, but Ukraine disagrees. Now the European Court of Human Rights is to consider the matter.
"You are the only hope." Lawyer Sergiy Vlasenko conveys his message to the eight Strasbourg judges with an earnest expression and a determined voice. His appearance is the emotional climax in a two-hour hearing of an extremely politically charged case: Yulia Tymoshenko, Ukrainian opposition leader and former prime minister, is turning to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) from her jail cell in Kharkiv, Ukraine.
"We cannot hope for justice in Ukrainian courts," Tymoshenko's daughter Yevhenia told Deutsche Welle.
Her mother had to wait more than a year before finally getting a hearing on Tuesday (28.08.2012) in Strasbourg - even though judges gave her appeal top priority in December 2011.
Last fall, the former leader of the pro-Western Orange Revolution in Ukraine was sentenced to seven years in prison, plus a fine of $187 million (149 million euros). A Kyiv court ruled that Tymoshenko had abused her position and damaged Ukraine by a gas contract she signed with Russia while she was in power.
But the 51-year-old has said she sees herself as a victim of a politically motivated judiciary, and has appealed against her imprisonment and what her lawyers describe as inadequate prison conditions, including no hot water, "unacceptable food," a light that stays on round the clock, and video surveillance.
Tymoschenko also said prison guards have hit her. Photos were circulated around the world in April 2012 showing bruises on her arms and abdomen. The Ukrainian government denies the accusations.
Nazar Kulchytsky, the Ukrainian government's representative in court, said these injuries were either "self-inflicted," or the early signs of an illness. But the central question in the case is whether Tymoshenko's conviction was politically motivated. The Ukrainian government denies this, and Kulchytsky said Tymoshenko's team has not provided enough evidence to prove it.
After the hearing, Kulchytsky told DW that the court case against Tymoshenko had been generally "non-political" Ukraine was hoping the Strasbourg judges would see it the same way.
Tymoshenko's lawyers disagreed. "As a political leader, she spoke to a lot of journalists and voters before the legal case began," said Valentina Telichenko, who is representing Tymoshenko alongside Vlasenko. This, she claimed, angered the ruling party.
The former prime minister's arrest was meant to cut the opposition leader out of political life, Vlasenko told the court. He also brought up a resolution passed by the parliamentary assembly of the European Council, criticizing the criminalization of political decisions in Ukraine. Several top European political leaders, as well as the human rights organization Amnesty International, have called the process against Tymoshenko "politically motivated."
Tymoshenko's daughter thanks Merkel
German Chancellor Angela Merkel has also criticized Tymoschenko's trial, and her daughter thanked the German leader "for her support, for her understanding, and her belief that my mother is innocent." She said Merkel's statements showed she had realized that the case is politically motivated.
The Strasbourg judges could well agree. The ECHR has condemned Ukraine once before, in July, when it labeled the imprisonment of Tymoshenko's ally and former Interior Minister Juri Luzenko as "arbitrary and unlawful."
A decision on the Tymoshenko case is expected in the coming months - her lawyers hope it will come before October 28, when Ukraine is set to elect a new parliament. The opposition has already named Tymoshenko as their candidate, but the central election commission in Kyiv refuses to register her. Some European politicians see this as a reason to question the legitimacy of the entire election.
Decision before election?
But observers expect the ECHR to delay its decision until after the election, to avoid being accused of political influence. However the ruling falls - it will likely not be the last.
On Wednesday (29.08.2012), an appeal court in Kyiv announced its verdict on the first Tymoshenko case. As expected it upheld the original decision and seven-year verdict. For that reason, Tymoshenko's lawyers are preparing to appeal not only against her prison conditions, but also against that judgement. On top of this, the opposition leader faces a number of other court cases, for instance for tax evasion. Tymoshenko also intends to appeal these at the ECHR.