By Richard Balmforth
KIEV (Reuters) - Former Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko clashed angrily with the judge at a pre-trial hearing on Saturday, denouncing the court action as political maneuvering aimed at wiping out the opposition in Ukraine.
The 50-year-old political firebrand, who faces charges of abuse of power during her time as prime minister, curtly refused to stand to address the court and alleged the hearing was part of a wider political plot.
"The aim of this trial is the liquidation of a working opposition in Ukraine," she said.
Tymoshenko, twice prime minister and now in opposition, alleged on Friday that President Viktor Yanukovich, her bitter political foe, was behind a crooked court action that was certain to convict her.
Though Western governments have not come down publicly on her side, visiting EU politicians have told the Yanukovich leadership they are concerned over the possible use of "selective justice" in Ukraine.
The hearing should decide whether to send Tymoshenko for trial for abuse of power over the signing of a 2009 gas supply agreement with Russia.
If convicted, she could face a prison term of 7-10 years.
The gas supply agreement ended a stand-off between Russia and its ex-Soviet neighbor over the pricing of Russian gas which had led to supplies being cut off to Western Europe. It has since been denounced by the Yanukovich leadership as a sell-out, though Kiev is continuing to observe it.
The prosecution alleges that Tymoshenko, without consulting her government, forced the then-head of state energy firm Naftogaz to sign the gas deal with Russia's Gazprom. She denies this.
"I did not break the law so where is the basis for the 7-10 years sentence which our 'bought' state prosecutor wants pronounced against me?" she asked on Saturday.
REFUSES TO STAND
While a few hundred of her supporters braved torrential rain on the streets of Kiev to express their solidarity, Tymoshenko used her oratory in the courtroom to berate the judge, Rodion Kyreyev, whom she denounced on Friday as a Yanukovich "puppet."
Refusing to stand to address the court, she told Kyreyev: "Since this is an ordered operation by the President, I permit myself to act toward the court as it does toward me. When the court becomes honorable, only then will I address you as 'Your Honor.'"
She also asked for other charges against her, including misuse of government funds received in exchange of emission quotas sold to Japan under the Kyoto protocol, to be heard by the court.
Tymoshenko became known as the "gas princess" in the late 1990s as owner of a company which bought and sold Russian gas.
With her trademark peasant-style hairbraid, she became an international figure in 2004 when she led the "Orange Revolution" street demonstrations that ultimately doomed Yanukovich's first bid for the presidency.
She went on to serve two terms as prime minister. But in February 2010, with many people disillusioned that the Orange Revolution leaders had failed to deliver on their promises, she lost to Yanukovich in a bitter fight for the presidency.
Though remaining very popular across the country, she has failed to unify the opposition around her since her defeat.
(Reporting by Pavel Polityuk; Writing by Richard Balmforth; Editing by Alistair Lyon)