KIEV, Ukraine -- Ukraine's jailing of former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko was a politically motivated violation of her rights, Europe's human rights court ruled on Tuesday, dealing a harsh blow to President Viktor Yanukovych who has insisted that the case against his top opponent was not political.
The prosecution of Tymoshenko, the country's most vocal opposition leader, has strained the former Soviet state's ties with the European Union and the United States. Tuesday's ruling put fresh pressure of Yanukovych to ensure Tymoshenko's release if he wants to sign a key cooperation agreement with Brussels later this year.
There was no immediate comment from the government, other than a promise to closely analyze the ruling.
Tymoshenko, a heroine of Ukraine's 2004 pro-democracy Orange Revolution who was instantly recognizable her blond braid wrapped around her head like a crown, was sentenced to seven years in prison in October 2011 after being convicted of exceeding her powers as premier while negotiating a gas contract with Russia.
The West has condemned Tymoshenko's jailing and other legal cases against her as politically motivated and insisted on her release.
Tymoshenko has accused Yanukovych of masterminding the legal campaign against her to keep her out politics. She insists her rights were violated when she was first jailed in August 2011 during her trial on charges of contempt of court. The Strasbourg-based court agreed unanimously that her jailing was "for other reasons" than those permissible by law.
In Kiev, Tymoshenko's defense team called on Yanukovych to honor the ruling and free her from jail soon. Her daughter Eugenia said that the ruling will be like the "first ray of sunlight" for her mother who is undergoing treatment for a spinal condition in a hospital ward where windows are shut and draped.
"The European court has recognized my mom as a political prisoner and now the authorities in Ukraine will no longer be able to deny this and deny the fact that she must be freed in the coming days or weeks," a triumphant Eugenia Tymoshenko told reporters. "Today is the first step toward her complete political rehabilitation and she will be freed soon. Soon she will be completely cleared of all the false and absurd accusations."
The Ukrainian government's response to the ruling was muted. In Strasbourg, Ukraine's Permanent Representative to the Council of Europe, Mykola Tochytskyi, stormed out of the courthouse after the ruling was read out. In Kiev, the Foreign Ministry said it is not ready to comment until It scrutinizes the ruling, while a government representative with the Court told the Interfax news agency that the government may appeal. Both sides have three months to do so.
Yanukovych has left Kiev on a short vacation and his spokeswoman could not be reached for comment on the prospects of the president releasing Tymoshenko.
In the past Yanukovych has insisted that the Tymoshenko case is not political, that Ukrainian courts are independent and that he cannot interfere in the legal proceedings. He has also resisted calls to pardon Tymoshenko on humanitarian grounds. Yanukovych has said that he will consider pardoning her after all the other legal proceedings against her are over. Tymoshenko has been charged with embezzlement, tax evasion and organizing the murder of a politician and businessman 17 years ago – charges she denies.
The European court ruling leaves Kieve to decide how to implement it. Last summer the European Court of Human Rights passed a similar ruling regarding a top Tymoshenko ally, former Interior Minister Yuri Lutsenko, whose jailing was also condemned as politically motivated by the West. The court ruled that the initial arrest of Lutsenko, who was then sentenced to four years in prison on charges of abuse of office and embezzlement, was also unlawful. While the Ukrainian government paid Lutsenko (EURO)15,000 in compensation, as per the court ruling, he was released only in April after Yanukovych pardoned him on humanitarian grounds, not based on the Strasbourg ruling.
Kiev-based political analyst Volodymyr Fesenko said that Tuesday's ruling was not legally binding for Kiev, because it concerns the conditions of Tymoshenko's two-month-long arrest before her conviction and sentencing. Today, Tymoshenko is no longer under arrest and is serving out her seven-year-sentence, which she is also appealing with the European Court of Human Rights. It is unclear when a decision on that is expected.
"He will not free her now," Fesenko said of Yanukovych, adding that Ukraine may offer Tymoshenko monetary compensation but will contest the finding of political motives behind her arrest. "The legal marathon will continue."
Olga Shumylo-Tapiola, a Ukraine scholar at Carnegie Europe, also said that the decision, although unpleasant for the Ukrainian government, was not mandatory.
"The court confirmed that the way she was detained was politically motivated," Shumylo-Tapiola said, adding that it is now up to Kiev to ponder the next move. "They're not ready to release her."
Vadim Karasyov, a political expert with ties to the government, speculated that Tymoshenko will not be released now, but as a face-saving the government may allow for her to be transported to Germany for treatment before the landmark Ukraine-EU summit later this year. That way, Tymoshenko will still be out of the Ukrainian political scene, something Yanukovych wants, and Brussels may agree to sign the association deal with Kiev.
In Kiev, Tymoshenko's political allies and members of her party rushed to congratulate her and call on the government to ensure her release, but there was little jubilation on the streets of the Ukrainian capital with Ukrainians largely disillusioned with politics. In a tent camp set up in the center of the Ukrainian capital outside the courthouse where Tymoshenko was convicted, there were only a handful of her supporters, who reacted with joy, but said they did not believe the government would release her.
"He (Yanukovych) has always been afraid of her," said Oleksiy Karaulny, 63, a retired carpenter in Kiev, one of the activists at the tent camp. "Of course we are happy. And it's not only me who his happy, it's all the 12 million (people) who voted for her are also happy. They know that truth will come, that justice will prevail."
Hinnant reported from Strasbourg, France.
Lori Hinnant can be reached at https://twitter.com/lhinnant