A top Ukrainian prosecutor charged Wednesday that a firm controlled by jailed former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko paid for the contract-style killing of a lawmaker and two others in 1996, adding to a slew of accusations and charges against the country's top opposition leader.
The statement by Deputy Prosecutor General Renat Kuzmin during an interview with The Associated Press further decreases the likelihood that Tymoshenko will be released from jail any time soon, despite strong Western pressure.
Tymoshenko, 51, is serving a seven-year sentence after being convicted of abuse of office in negotiating a natural gas contract with Russia in 2009. Her lawyer denied Kuzmin's claim.
The West has condemned Tymoshenko's trial and sentence as politically motivated, and the European Union has halted the implementation of a key partnership agreement with Kiev over the case.
Tymoshenko has accused President Viktor Yanukovych of orchestrating her imprisonment to prevent her from running in parliamentary elections this fall. She had lost to Yanukovych in the 2010 presidential election.
Kuzmin charged that companies controlled by Tymoshenko and former Prime Minister Pavlo Lazarenko transferred money to pay the killers of Yevhen Shcherban, who was shot to death at an airport with his wife and an aide. Lazarenko is serving a nine-year sentence in the United States on charges of extortion and corruption.
"It has been established that the killer received money from Tymoshenko and Lazarenko's firms," Kuzmin said, adding that Shcherban had opposed their business interests. "Their money was used to pay for the murder."
Kuzmin said prosecutors are studying the case to determine whether to formally implicate Tymoshenko in the murder, but to do this they need to question Lazarenko, who is in a California jail. He expressed frustration that U.S. authorities have refused their requests to do that for more than a year.
Tymoshenko lawyer Serhiy Vlasenko dismissed Kuzmin's statement as untrue, calling it an attempt to further tarnish her image among Ukrainians.
"Now they are trying to brainwash everybody into believing that she was involved in Shcherban's murder," Vlasenko told the AP. "Their only goal is to politically kill a political opponent."
Tymoshenko was found guilty of overstepping her authority during a tense pricing dispute with Moscow in January 2009. The dispute led to energy disruptions across Europe after Russia halted gas deliveries to Ukraine, through which Europe gets most of its Russian supplies.
In convicting Tymoshenko in October, the court sided with prosecutors who argued that she was not formally allowed to order the signing of the gas contract, which significantly raised the price Ukraine pays for gas and was judged burdensome for the economy.
But Kuzmin charged Wednesday that Tymoshenko may also have had a personal motive in agreeing to the price hike. Kuzmin suggested that since the company she headed in the mid-1990s, Unified Energy Systems, still owed Russia $405 million, Tymoshenko may have struck some kind of a deal with Russia.
"Yulia Volodymyrovna was dependent on the Russian side ... she had no legal or moral right to travel there (for the negotiations) and give orders," Kuzmin said using Tymoshenko's patronymic. "It is hard to defend the interests of the Ukrainian people the way you should if you have liabilities and are indebted to someone."
Kuzmin dismissed Western criticism of the case, saying officials in the United States and the European Union did not understand the specifics.
"How can you politically condemn a trial whose legal side nobody knows?" Kuzmin asked.
Tymoshenko denies the charges, saying that she was fully authorized to lead the talks and that concluding that deal with Russia was the only way to restore supplies to Ukraine and other European countries during a winter freeze.
Vlasenko confirmed Unified Energy Systems' debt to Russia, but said that Tymoshenko has not controlled or owned stock in the company for nearly 15 years and was therefore not responsible for the debt.
(This version corrects that Kuzmin is the deputy prosecutor general, not the prosecutor general.)