KIEV, Ukraine _ Ukraine issued mixed signals Thursday on the fate of imprisoned ex-premier Yulia Tymoshenko, with the president hinting she could be released after a legal reform but the country's security agency filing new corruption charges against her.
The United States and the European Union have condemned this week's sentencing of Tymoshenko to seven years in prison for abuse of office.
In response to that Western criticism, President Viktor Yanukovych said Thursday that he backs legislative changes that could free her from jail.
Tymoshenko was found guilty Tuesday of exceeding her authority in signing a gas deal with Russia in 2009. She dismissed her trial as Yanukovych's attempt to remove her _ the country's top opposition leader _ from politics.
Yanukovych said the Soviet-era law that served as a basis for Tymoshenko's conviction was outdated and should be changed.
The law "has been classified as part of administrative offenses or political cases around the world, in many countries. If you ask me, 'Do I agree with it? Without, a doubt, I agree,'" Yanukovych told reporters.
He suggested that the amendments could be adopted in time for an appeals court to review the case. "If the relevant bills are passed before the appeals hearing, the appeals court will definitely take them into account while hearing the case," he said.
Parliament last week gave initial approval to a bill to decriminalize some economic offenses but that bill contained no mention of the statue under which Tymoshenko was charged. Parliament is to consider that bill again next week and some analysts believe it could be amended to include Tymoshenko's charge.
But Ukraine's Security Service, the SBU, on Thursday charged Tymoshenko with attempting to embezzle $405 million in government funds. Besides the new charges and the gas conviction, Tymoshenko is also the subject of two other corruption investigations, which she dismisses as a "witch hunt."
SBU spokeswoman Marina Ostapenko said as prime minister, Tymoshenko transferred the debts of an energy company she headed in the 1990s onto the government. Asked to clarify how that was done, Ostapenko only said, "As the premier, she could do anything."
Tymoshenko's top aide Oleksandr Turhchynov dismissed the new charges as "absurd" and said the latest case was aimed only at making sure that Tymoshenko was locked away in prison.
Tymoshenko served two stints as prime minister, in 2005 and from 2007 to 2010. Last year she ran for president but lost to Yanukovych, her longtime foe.
Tymoshenko was one of the leading figures of the 2004 Orange Revolution that protested a fraudulent election in which Yanukovych was named the winner. A court-ordered rerun of the election tossed out Yanukovych's win and brought Viktor Yushchenko to power, but he and his onetime ally Tymoshenko quarreled bitterly during much of his presidency.
Many Ukrainians were puzzled by Thursday's new charge against Tymoshenko.
Yanukovych "made it clear that the first case would most likely be decriminalized," said political analyst Mykhailo Pohrebinsky, adding that he was surprised by the SBU's decision.
"This is a very strange affair," said political analyst Mykhailo Pohrebinsky.