Ex-Ukraine PM maintains innocence in court speech

AP News
Posted: Sep 29, 2011 1:01 PM
Ex-Ukraine PM maintains innocence in court speech

Choking back tears, former Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko insisted on her innocence Thursday during an emotional closing statement in an abuse-of-office trial that has been criticized by the West.

The top opposition leader broke with her tradition of refusing to rise when addressing the court, standing up from her seat and turning away from Judge Rodion Kireyev to address the small courtroom, packed with supporters, journalists and foreign diplomats.

In the statement, she accused her longtime foe, President Viktor Yanukovych, of "lynching" her to get rid of a tough political opponent.

"The president of Ukraine considers me a dangerous political opponent _ and rightly so," Tymoshenko said. "I will devote my life to making sure that Ukraine becomes free."

Tymoshenko spoke as part of her defense team's closing arguments, but she is also expected to address the court one final time in the coming days before the verdict is issued.

Clad in an elegant coffee-with-cream colored dress and jacket, her blond hair wrapped around her head in her trademark braid, she said it was pointless to address the judge, because Yanukovych has already written a guilty verdict.

Prosecutors have asked the court to sentence Tymoshenko, 50, to seven years in prison and bar her from occupying government posts for three years for exceeding her authority during the signing of a natural gas import contract with Russia in 2009. Prosecutors claim that she had not been officially authorized to approve the deal and believe the price she agreed to was too high.

The United States and the European Union have criticized the trial as politically motivated and Brussels has warned that jailing Tymoshenko may cost Ukraine its integration with the EU.

Tymoshenko has spent nearly two months in jail as part of the trial on charges of contempt of court.

Tymoshenko is a charismatic but divisive figure, who was the driving force behind the 2004 Orange Revolution that brought hundreds of thousands into the streets of Kiev to protest fraudulent election results that showed Yanukovych winning.

Although that election was later annulled, Yanukovych narrowly defeated Tymoshenko in a 2010 vote to become president, as Ukrainians grew angry with constant bickering in the Orange camp.

Tymoshenko said Thursday she takes pride in the 2009 contract, because it ended a bitter pricing dispute between Moscow and Kiev that led to severe energy shortages in Ukraine and across Europe. She says she did not need any special permission for the contract as the country's prime minister.

"At that time I acted legally, logically and effectively," Tymoshenko said. "The crisis was solved."

Her lengthy speech was often interrupted by applause from her supports, prompting Kireyev to demand silence.

Tymoshenko's trial is part of a web of corruption investigations targeting her and her senior aides. Tymoshenko calls the probe a witch-hunt, but the government insists it is merely fighting corruption.

Earlier in the day, Tymoshenko's lawyer Mykola Siry told the court that the prosecutors' case made no sense and quipped that the people who wrote were mentally unfit. Siry said that the prosecutors claim that the gas contract was highly unfavorable for Ukraine but that Tymoshenko concluded it to gain popularity was absurd.

"It's ridiculous to make such stupid statements and think that somebody will believe it," Siry said.

Tymoshenko finished her speech by saying that, if convicted, she will never asked to be pardoned, because that would be "an acknowledgment of dictatorship."

"Let him (Yanukovych) not even make such plans," she added.