Tymoshenko Faces Another Legal Probe

KIEV, Ukraine -- Ukrainian prosecutors say they are probing whether Yulia Tymoshenko was involved in ordering a 1990s contract killing, opening a new legal front against the former prime minister and one-time Orange Revolution leader.

Yulia Tymoshenko

The move could intensify Ukraine’s political stand-off with the west over Ms Tymoshenko’s jailing last year on abuse of office charges which have been condemned by the EU and US as politically motivated.

European and US officials suspect Viktor Yanukovich, Ukraine’s president, of using prosecutions to sideline his political opponents.

The Tymoshenko affair is already threatening to block the signing and ratification of a landmark EU co-operation deal with Ukraine – the EU’s biggest-ever agreement with a non-member.

Rinat Kuzmin, deputy prosecutor-general, told the Financial Times he had evidence companies controlled by Ms Tymoshenko and another former premier now in jail in the US, Pavlo Lazarenko, transferred money to pay the killers of Yevhen Shcherban.

Mr Shcherban, a lawmaker and businessman, was shot along with his wife and two others at Donetsk airport in 1996.

Mr Kuzmin’s accusations came as prosecutors formally brought new criminal charges last week of corporate tax evasion against Ms Tymoshenko, 51, also dating from the 1990s.

These are set to lead to a new trial, with a potential sentence of seven to 12 years.

Serhiy Vlasenko, Ms Tymoshenko’s lawyer, called the new charges against her unfounded “propaganda” designed to blacken her name.

The suggestion of a link to the Shcherban murder was “absolutely absurd”, he added.

“As far as I know, there is no case, there are no official accusations against Mrs Tymoshenko in any murder,” he said.

“This so-called accusation is on the level with accusing her of killing [US president John F] Kennedy.”

The political firebrand is already serving a seven-year sentence on charges of abusing procedures when she agreed a 2009 gas deal with Russia that prosecutors said damaged Ukraine’s economy.

Canadian and German doctors who have examined her in jail say Ms Tymoshenko has developed a serious back complaint requiring specialist hospital treatment, which she has so far been denied.

US president Barack Obama raised the case in Seoul last week with Mr Yanukovich, who beat his arch-rival in Ukraine’s 2010 presidential election.

The mushrooming allegations against Ms Tymoshenko seem aimed at persuading the international community she has genuine cases to answer, undermining claims she is a victim of selective justice.

Ms Tymoshenko’s allies suggest they are also designed to ensure the opposition leader remains in jail during parliamentary elections this October, even if she wins an appeal in Ukraine due on May 15, or at the European Court of Human Rights.

Mr Kuzmin insisted last year’s conviction was fully watertight, saying critics of the case did not know the facts.

He accused western countries of “double standards” in being ready to jail their senior politicians for misdeeds, but not permitting Ms Tymoshenko to be held to account.

“What is your view, in the west, of political persecution? Does this mean that the leader of the opposition can’t be prosecuted, even for murder? That such people are above the law? The view of the prosecutor’s office is that nobody is above the law.”

Mr Kuzmin alleged Mr Lazarenko and Ms Tymoshenko, who had business links in the 1990s, had a dispute with Shcherban.

He said money was paid from a Tymoshenko-controlled company, Somolli Enterprises, to a company account of Mr Lazarenko, then wired to a man convicted in 2003 of shooting Shcherban.
“[Somolli] is Tymoshenko’s company . . . The money for the killing was paid by Tymoshenko and Lazarenko,” the prosecutor said.

A written statement from the prosecutors’ office attributed this claim in part to testimony last November and December from a former Lazarenko associate, Petro Kiritchenko, now a US resident, to Ukraine’s State Security Service.

But Mr Kiritchenko’s wife, arrested for several months on a visit to Ukraine last September on a real estate charge, has alleged to the Kyiv Post newspaper she was held to pressure her husband to testify.

Contacted by the FT, Mr Kiritchenko declined to comment on his testimony.

Mr Kuzmin said he was seeking to interview Mr Lazarenko, nearing the end of a nine-year US jail term for money laundering, to verify the information.

Mr Lazarenko has denied any involvement with the murder.

The Ukrainian prosecutor said Ms Tymoshenko was the subject of “about ten” other investigations, including the tax evasion charges.

Her lawyer, Mr Vlasenko, said the cases had no substance and related to a period when Ms Tymoshenko had already left her business to become a parliamentarian.

He said they had been thoroughly investigated early last decade and thrown out by Ukraine’s supreme court in 2005.

One senior foreign official in Kiev said Ukraine’s criminal justice system had already been so discredited by last year’s Tymoshenko case and others that even if prosecutors formally implicated her in the murder case, western countries were unlikely to lend this much credence.

But Ukraine’s worsening relations with the west are worrying investors, who fear a looming fiscal squeeze as it launches a pre-election spending splurge while a $15.6bn IMF programme remains frozen.

Tim Ash, emerging markets strategist at RBS, said the new Tymoshenko charges were “hardly the actions of an administration which is looking to rebuild bridges with the west and get its IMF programme back on track”.

Source: FT