Former Ukraine Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko went on trial Friday on charges of abuse of office, insisting during a chaotic hearing in a small and stiflingly hot courtroom that the case is a plot by the nation's president to keep her out of politics.
Tymoshenko, 50, clad in a beige suit with her signature blond braid wrapped around her head, said President Viktor Yanukovych is seeking to bar her from upcoming parliamentary and presidential elections as a convicted felon.
But the 2004 Orange Revolution heroine, now the country's top opposition leader, said she would not be quiet: "My voice will be even louder from prison because the whole world will hear me."
Confusion reigned in the crammed, poorly air-conditioned courtroom. Tymoshenko's supporters continuously disrupted proceedings, ignoring the judge's demand to respect the court.
They shouted "Shame, shame!" through a loudspeaker, and insulted the court and authorities, including calling one of the prosecutors a witch. One supporter used water to twice douse a pro-government lawmaker, a fierce opponent of Tymoshenko who came to support the prosecution, then insisted it was an accident. Tymoshenko's supporters also scuffled briefly with a small group of Tymoshenko's opponents who were forced out of the room.
More than 100 journalists, supporters and opponents packed the hall in Kiev's Pechersk district court. Most attendees had to climb on top of narrow wooden benches to see and hear the proceedings and took turns standing near a window for fresh air. Sweat dripped from Judge Rodion Kireyev's face and his hair was wet.
Tymoshenko's lawyer, Serhyi Vlasov, pleaded with the court for a short break to change into a new shirt because his was soaking wet. A young woman in the courtroom briefly fainted and was escorted out.
The United States and the European Union have condemned the cases against Tymoshenko and a number of her top allies as selective prosecution of political opponents.
"When the senior leadership of an opposition party is the focus of prosecutions out of proportion with other political figures, this does create the appearance of a political motive," U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said.
Jose Manuel Pinton Teixeira, the EU's ambassador to Ukraine, who attended the trial together with a group of other foreign diplomats, said the conditions in the courtroom were horrendous. "I cannot give a political assessment of this case, but the conditions of this trial are inhumane," Teixeira told reporters as he headed out.
Tymoshenko has been charged with abuse of office for signing a deal with Moscow in 2009 to buy Russian natural gas at prices investigators said were too high and without authorization to sign the deal by the members of her Cabinet. Prosecutors say her actions have cost the government 3.5 billion hryvnas ($440 million or euro310 million) in damages.
Tymoshenko denies the charges, saying that she didn't need such permission as the premier and that the deal ended a bitter pricing war with Moscow that led to disruptions in natural gas supply across Europe.
Tymoshenko, who carried an Orthodox Christian icon and a prayer book into the courtroom, refused to stand up when addressing the judge, as required, saying the court was not worthy of her respect.
"I declare you a puppet of the presidential office," Tymoshenko told the judge. "You don't have the right to consider this case. You are fully integrated into a system of political repression directed by authorities."
Tymoshenko was the central figure in the 2004 mass protests dubbed the Orange Revolution that threw out Yanukovych's fraud-tainted presidential election victory and brought a pro-Western government to power. She became prime minister but Ukrainians grew frustrated over economic hardships, slow reforms and endless bickering in the Orange camp and she lost to Kremlin-friendly Yanukovych in the 2010 presidential election.
Many Tymoshenko allies also have faced official charges recently, which she describes as part of the government's efforts to weaken the opposition.
Her former economics minister, who faced corruption allegations over the reconstruction of Kiev's airport, was granted political asylum in the Czech Republic in January. The former interior minister has been in jail for six months on charges that he defrauded the government when he hired a driver who was too old and paid him illegal bonuses.
David J. Kramer, executive director of the Washington-based democracy watchdog Freedom House, said the case against Tymoshenko "suggests more an effort by the Prosecutor General's office to find something, anything to go after her."
"They don't seem to be taking ... as aggressive an approach to others, including current government officials," he told The Associated Press.
Few think that Tymoshenko could be sentenced to prison, but observers say a suspended sentence would also keep her out of the next year's parliamentary elections and the 2015 presidential vote.
"I think that it is aimed to make politics devoid of competition, as Yanukovych wants, to liquidate the opposition, to liquidate any dissent," Tymoshenko told reporters during a break in the court session.
The court rejected several motions by Tymoshenko's defense team, including to dismiss the judge and send the case back to the prosecutors. Tymoshenko also requested to be tried by a jury; the court has yet to rule on that plea.
The trial will continue Saturday.