KIEV, Ukraine (AP) — A top ally of imprisoned former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko walked free from jail Sunday, after Ukraine's president pardoned him and another ex-minister, moving toward fulfilling a key demand on Kiev's path to integrate closer with the European Union.
President Viktor Yanukovych signed a decree to pardon former Interior Minister Yuri Lutsenko, 48, who is serving a four-year sentence on charges of abuse of office and embezzlement. Lutsenko's health has deteriorated since his arrest in early 2010, his supporters and doctors said.
The move came after the country's human rights official petitioned for Lutsenko, and the presidential commission on pardons recommended that Yanukovych pardon him. He also pardoned another Tymoshenko ally, the former environment minister, Heorhiy Filipchuk, who was also imprisoned for abuse of office.
Tymoshenko is serving a seven-year prison sentence after being convicted in 2011 of abuse office.
The West has called the cases politically motivated. The European Union has warned that it will not sign a key cooperation agreement with Kiev until those two cases are resolved. Yanukovych also needs Western support as he tries to secure a $15 billion bailout loan from the International Monetary Fund.
Lutsenko stepped out of a prison in the Chernihiv region, about 150 kilometers (100 miles) north of Kiev, into the arms of his wife, son and supporters who held bouquets of roses. Wearing a traditional Ukrainian embroidered shirt under a black jacket, Lutsenko looked upbeat and confident.
"Today's event for me is a victory of Ukrainian democracy, of the world democracy which has achieved in making sure that Ukraine begins making the right steps in stopping political repression in our country," Lutsenko told reporters. He added that he would continue political activity, including taking part in street protests, though he does not plan to run for president in the 2015 race.
The EU's enlargement commissioner, Stefan Fuele, said on his Twitter feed that the pardons for Lutsenko and Filipchuk were a "first but important step."
In Poland, President Bronislaw Komorowski said it was a "good step that will help restore a good image of Ukraine," which is a condition, along with reforms, for the signing of an association agreement between Ukraine and the EU, expected in November.
Poland is an advocate of Ukraine's EU aspirations and Komorowski has repeatedly raised the case of Lutsenko and Tymoshenko with Yanukovych. Polish Foreign Ministry spokesman Marcin Bosacki said if "things continue this way, this very important signing of the association agreement in the fall will be possible. We are all counting on it."
The state prison service said that Lutsenko had been released. Lutsenko's brother Sergei said he was on the way to pick him up from jail.
Lutsenko's lawyer, Valentyna Telychenko, hailed the decision.
"It's a very important signal that Ukraine still wants to fulfill Europe's demands aimed at correcting problems in the sphere of justice and elections," Telychenko was quoted as saying by the Interfax news agency.
Telychenko said Tymoshenko should also be freed since she has been convicted of a non-violent crime and she also has health problems.
However, Yanukovych says he can't unilaterally pardon Tymoshenko until her legal options are exhausted. She is appealing her conviction before the European Court for Human Rights. He also says he doesn't want to interfere with other cases pending against Tymoshenko. She is under investigation for murder in the 1996 killing of a businessman and faces probes in other corruption cases.
Meanwhile, around 4,000 opposition supporters rallied against the government in central Kiev. Lutsenko addressed the crowd by telephone, saying he was with the opposition and believed that democracy and freedom would prevail in Ukraine.