Ukraine Gives Some Mixed Signals On Release Of Jailed Former Leader

KIEV, Ukraine -- Ukraine's security service on Thursday opened a new criminal case against jailed former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, while the president hinted at a deal to release her from the seven-year prison term she was handed two days ago.

Riot police try to contain supporters of former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko outside the district court in Kiev.

The apparently mixed messages indicate the pressure President Viktor Yanukovych is under to balance demands from the West to release the opposition leader with a widely perceived desire to eliminate his main political rival.

The new criminal case, announced Thursday by the country's security service, accuses Ms. Tymoshenko and former Prime Minister Pavlo Lazarenko of conspiring to transfer a debt of $405 million from gas-trading company United Energy Systems of Ukraine to the state.

Ms. Tymoshenko headed the company in the mid-1990s while Mr. Lazerenko was prime minister.

He is currently serving a jail term in the U.S. for money laundering and other offenses.

Ms. Tymoshenko's top adviser, Oleksandr Turchynov, called the new charges "absurd" and a "fabrication."

The fiery opposition leader was jailed on Tuesday for exceeding her authority in ordering state energy company Naftogaz to sign an unfavorable gas supply contract with Russia in 2009.

She was also ordered to return $190 million to the company. Her lawyers said Thursday that she would appeal next week.

The West has criticized the conviction as politically motivated and pressed Mr. Yanukovych to find a way to release Ms. Tymoshenko or face a freeze in relations.

European Union officials have warned that a political association and free-trade agreement, which is currently under negotiation, is under threat.

The new charges "further damage the credibility" of the government, a senior Western diplomat in Kiev said.

However, Mr. Yanukovych on Thursday also repeated backing for changes to the Criminal Code that would see the violation Ms. Tymoshenko was convicted under decriminalized.

This would cancel the court's verdict, her lawyers say.

"If the relevant bills are passed before the appeals hearing, the appeals court will definitely take them into account while hearing the case," Mr. Yanukovych said.

Western officials in Kiev said the president has been promising such a solution for several weeks, and should now act.

"It's time to put up or shut up," said the diplomat.

Yuriy Yakymenko, an analyst at the Razumkov Center think tank in Kiev, said the authorities may release Ms. Tymoshenko, but then use the new case to keep her uncomfortable.

"She may not be jailed for it, but they will start a new process and put her under pressure," he said.

Source: The Wall Street Journal