Yulia Tymoshenko, heroine of the “orange revolution” and one of the few women ever to achieve prime ministerial office in the former Soviet republics, is not allowed to stand in Ukraine’s current national election. For the last 15 months she has been in prison, convicted for actions that would not amount to a crime in any other democracy. She is subjected to the grossest invasion of her privacy (almost every movement she makes is videoed) and constantly defamed by the president and his tame prosecutors. Europe seems to have abandoned her; but tomorrow, at the UN’s human rights committee, the UK can bring her situation to the world’s attention.
Her innocence of any real crime is clear from the judgments at her trial and final appeal. She was convicted of the vague charge of “abuse of office” by reaching a deal with Putin which resolved a gas crisis in January 2009 that risked causing deaths in central Europe. Russia had cut off gas to Ukraine – and through it, to a number of countries – and was going to continue doing so unless transportation charges were increased. With the encouragement of the EU and Angela Merkel, Tymoshenko flew to Moscow and reached a compromise.
Her opponents thought she should have held out for better terms. The issue was fully canvassed over the next few months in the presidential election, in which she was narrowly beaten by Viktor Yanukovych (winner of the rigged 2004 election that the orange revolution overturned).
An example of functioning democracy, you might think. But not in Ukraine, where Tymoshenko was then prosecuted. It was not suggested she had made a penny out of the gas deal, or had been dishonest or criminal in any accepted sense of that word. Her crime, according to her judge, was that she had “acted in her personal interests, desiring to create for herself the image of an efficient leader of its state who could deal with the gas crisis shortly before the presidential elections”. In other words, she had acted as any other populist leader in a democracy – she had resolved a crisis, then submitted herself and her conduct to the electorate. The charge had been used by the regime to silence a political opponent.
Ukraine maintains the Stalinist system whereby the prosecution service (its top officials appointed by the president) controls the courts. Its judges have no independence. This can be proven by a single statistic: the conviction rate in criminal cases is an incredible 99.8%. On his appointment, Tymoshenko’s prosecutor, Viktor Pshonka, declared himself “on the president’s team” and his deputy appears regularly on TV to defame her. If judges rule against the prosecution in a political trial, it then prosecutes them for the offence of being untrue to their oath. They do not have tenure until they serve loyally for five years. As European human rights officials point out, this sword of Damocles makes these “P-plate judges” do whatever the prosecution wants.
The Tymonshenko trial is a classic example. Her judge, only two years in office, was plucked from a small town court and given the most important trial in Ukraine’s history. He showed his colours (they were not orange) by a brutal and unnecessary decision, early in the trial, to put Tymoshenko in prison. Her sentence – seven years and an order to pay $186m – was calculated to destroy her. And all for acting as a prime minister should, to avert a humanitarian crisis in central Europe.
Once, Stalinist systems delivered “telephone justice” – a call to the judge from the party boss. In Ukraine today, it is “megaphone justice”: the president and his prosecutors publicly declared Tymoshenko guilty before her trial, and a lickspittle judge then did their bidding.
The Council of Europe has passed motions condemning her treatment but has done nothing to sanction her persecutors or to suspend Ukraine’s membership. When Britain speaks at the UN, it must make clear that Yulia Tymoshenko has become Europe’s Aung San Suu Kyi.
Geoffrey Robertson QC is head of Doughty Street Chambers.