Ukraine's Tymoshenko mocks court in trial

AP News
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Posted: Jul 22, 2011 6:02 AM
Ukraine's Tymoshenko mocks court in trial

She refuses to rise when addressing the court, calls the judge a "monster," and is buoyed by supporters' chants of "Shame! Shame!" The judge demands order but fears expelling rowdy spectators because they're national lawmakers.

Yulia Tymoshenko's abuse of power trial is chaotic even by the boisterous standards of Ukraine, famous for its theatrical street protests and parliamentary fistfights.

The charismatic former prime minister is convinced that the trial is a government ploy to bar her from politics, and she's hit upon an unusual defense strategy: mocking the court.

Ukraine's president, Viktor Yanukovych, has faced Western accusations of political motives for prosecuting the country's top opposition leader. But some also see Tymoshenko's antics as undermining her claims to being a champion of Western values of democracy and the rule of law.

Tymoshenko, 50, is charged with abusing her powers in signing a natural gas import contract with Russia in 2009 that prosecutors claim was disadvantageous for Ukraine.

The terms of the contract can be debated, but few in the West think it's a criminal matter. Experts in Ukraine and abroad believe the trial's real motive is to disqualify Tymoshenko _ as a convicted felon _ from upcoming parliamentary and presidential elections.

Tymoshenko has a long and bitter history with Yanukovych.

She was the heroine of the 2004 Orange Revolution that sparked a wave of excitement about a new democratic dawn in Ukraine, as protesters thronged Kiev's main square to block the Moscow-backed Yanukovych, accused of stealing the presidential election, from taking office.

Those dreams faded into disillusionment as Tymoshenko, the new prime minister, and her Orange Revolution partner Viktor Yushchenko, who became president, bickered incessantly and dragged the nation into political paralysis.

Yanukovych legitimately beat Tymoshenko and Yushchenko in presidential polls in 2010, but she still remains a formidable political force with a broad support base.

Tymoshenko now accuses Yanukovych of writing her verdict in advance.

"It's not a trial, it's political repression ordered by the president of Ukraine," Tymoshenko, clad in a dazzling white shirt, black skirt and black stiletto heels, her trademark blond braid wrapped around her head, told the court last Friday.

Yanukovych has insisted Tymoshenko's case is part of his anti-corruption fight and promised the trial will be open and fair. But the court has clearly favored the prosecution and reporters have had a difficult time covering the proceedings, occasionally being expelled from the small, stifling courtroom for no stated reason.

Judge Rodion Kireyev has been rushing the trial, giving Tymoshenko's lawyers very little time to study evidence in the case, making one attorney read 4,000 pages per day, and has rejected most motions filed by the defense.

In response, the acerbic Tymoshenko lashes out at the judge, a 31-year-old with the air of an inexperienced middle-school teacher facing a room of unruly teens.

In a recent session, he spent an hour pleading with Tymoshenko to respect the court and rise when addressing him. Spectators laughed derisively and shouted.

"The law is the same for everybody, defendant Tymoshenko!" said Kireyev, clenching his teeth and taking deep breaths.

"This is my protest against injustice, corruption and repression," Tymoshenko shot back, staying firmly in her seat. She also refused to address the judges as "Your Honor" _ telling him that "honor must first be deserved."

Tymoshenko, who has always thrived in the spotlight, seems energized by the trial, often addressing the media, not the judge. After being briefly booted from the courtroom for calling Kireyev a "monster" this month, she compared herself to the victims of bloodthirsty dictators.

"They will try me in absentia," she wrote on Twitter. "Neither Pinochet, nor Stalin, nor Hitler did this. Yanukovych is creating an atmosphere of jail in the entire country."

In a session last week, the courtroom was filled as usual with Tymoshenko's supporters, mostly lawmakers from her party, whose task appeared to be to disrupt proceedings. "Mr. Judge! An illegal gang of prosecutors is present in the courtroom," one lawmaker shouted.

Ukrainian lawmakers are immune from prosecution and Kireyev has been reluctant to order out the disruptive ones. On the rare occasions when he does, police hesitate.

One recent time he tried to expel a pro-Tymoshenko lawmaker, he pleaded with the police several times to enforce the decision. The officers didn't move and an irritated Kireyev stormed out of the chamber.

Some experts say that Tymoshenko, who does not have immunity because she's no longer a lawmaker, is tarnishing her democratic credentials by mocking the courts.

"Both sides have turned this trial into a farce, although this was not initiated by Tymoshenko," said Valeriy Chaly, deputy head of the Razumkov Center think tank in Kiev. "This is discrediting the Ukrainian legal system and Ukraine as a whole."

Three weeks into the trial, Tymoshenko's defense strategy has focused mainly on dragging out and discrediting proceedings by changing lawyers and filing repeated requests to disqualify Kireyev.

Some experts believe Tymoshenko should focus on legal issues to prove her innocence.

"Tymoshenko would be well advised to be above this and demonstrate a completely different level of public behavior in court," said Oleh Rybachuk, a member of Tymoshenko's first Cabinet who has turned into a civic activist.