Ukraine parliament rejects bills to release Tymoshenko

The Ukrainian parliament on Thursday voted against bills that would free jailed opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko, dealing a potentially fatal blow to its chances of signing a historic trade deal with the EU at a summit this month.

Ukraine's former premier Yulia Tymoshenko, pictured in court in Kiev, on October 11, 2011

Watched by special EU envoys Aleksander Kwasniewski and Pat Cox, the Verkhovna Rada rejected all six bills that had been put forward on the treatment of convicts abroad after they failed to gain the support of President Viktor Yanukovych's ruling Regions Party.

Opposition lawmakers, who supported the legislation, shouted "shame" as the final bill was rejected in the 450-seat parliament.

The six bills failed to earn the 226 votes necessary to pass, with fewer than 200 lawmakers supporting the legislation.

EU leaders have made clear that Ukraine will only be able to sign a political and trade agreement considered the first step to eventual membership at the November 28-29 summit in Vilnius if it allows some form of release of Tymoshenko who was jailed in 2011 on abuse of authority charges.

The signing of the Association Agreement would represent a break by Kiev from its historical master Russia, which has warned of severe repercussions on bilateral trade if the deal is signed.

After the failure to agree on the legislation, the leader of the ultra-nationalist party Svoboda, Oleg Tiagnybok, called on the EU to sign the agreement with Ukraine anyway.

"I ask you to vote in favour of the Association even in this case," he said, addressing EU envoys Kwasniewski and Cox.

Iryna Gerashchenko, a lawmaker from the opposition UDAR (Punch) party, urged the creation of a working group to consider the pardoning of Tymoshenko, adding that the EU should slap sanctions against the Ukrainian lawmakers who failed to support the bills.

Tymoshenko ally and opposition leader Arseniy Yatsenyuk handed parliament speaker Volodymyr Rybak a draft of a presidential decree on Tymoshenko's pardon.

"Let him sign it," he said, referring to the president.

"This is a moment of truth for Yanukovych," he said, speaking before the vote. "We do not face a choice between West and the EU, we face a choice between the future and the past."

The Polish foreign ministry said it was watching the situation carefully.

"We hope a compromise can be reached," Marcin Wojciechowski, Poland's foreign ministry spokesman said. "The decision lies in the hands of Ukrainians."

Protest called for Sunday

Earlier Thursday, the Rada parliament passed in the final reading legislation on elections, one of three key bills seen as a pre-condition for the EU deal.

But parliament has for the last weeks unsuccessfully tried to agree a bill on allowing the treatment of convicts abroad, which would allow Tymoshenko to receive medical treatment in Germany.

The pro-Tymoshenko opposition has accused Yanukovych of having no interest in seeing Tymoshenko released ahead of 2015 presidential elections and deliberately trying to stymie the inking of the deal with the EU.

Yanukovych was Thursday expected on an official visit to Austria.

President Dalia Grybauskaite, of Lithuania, which holds the EU presidency, told AFP that Kiev must act now to secure the deal.

"There are no guarantees that it could be signed after a year or two... The pause in relations may take a very long period of time," she said.

Yanukovych –- who made a visit to Moscow earlier this month for secret talks with President Vladimir Putin –- is also reported to be worried by the possible effects of Russian retaliation on the already embattled Ukrainian economy.

Opposition leaders have called for a mass rally in Kiev on Sunday to protect Ukraine’s European choice.

Tymoshenko was one of the co-leaders of the 2004 Orange Revolution that forced the annulment of presidential elections initially claimed by Yanukovych.

However Yanukovych bounced back to win presidential elections in 2010 and just one-and-a-half years later Tymoshenko was arrested and jailed for seven years on charges of abuse of power while in office.

Tymoshenko, who suffers from back pain, is receiving treatment in a hospital outside her prison in the northeastern city of Kharkiv.

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Writer: AFP
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