Ukraine brings new charges against ex-PM
(KIEV) - The Ukrainian Security Service said Thursday it had launched a new probe against jailed ex-premier Yulia Tymoshenko over suspected embezzlement when she headed an energy firm in the 1990s.
The new charges against the flamboyant Orange Revolution leader came despite a new admission from President Viktor Yanukovych that his rival's seven-year jailing was hurting his country's chances of EU integration.
The SBU security service's surprising charges relate to a mid-1990s period in Ukraine that saw the country wracked by early post-Soviet lawlessness and unusual business dealings between giant firms.
Tymoshenko is suspected of embezzling $405 million of funds in cooperation with another government member while heading the company United Energy Systems of Ukraine, the country's largest power company at the time.
The SBU said a criminal probe was also opened against Pavlo Lazarenko -- a Tymoshenko ally who was prime minister from 1996-1997. He is now in US detention after being convicted in 2006 of embezzlement and money laundering.
"The main investigative department of the SBU has opened a criminal case against the citizens of Ukraine, Tymoshenko and Lazarenko," SBU investigations department head Ivan Derevyanko told reporters.
Tymoshenko is accused of reassigning a debt of $405.5 million -- owed by her company to the Russian defence ministry -- to the Ukrainian budget and then transferring the sum to herself and Lazarenko.
She was arrested on related charges in 2001 once she entered politics but then quickly released and cleared.
Thursday's case is especially significant because it alleges high-scale corruption. Tymoshenko's jailing on abuse of office charges was derided in Europe as political and saw her daughter Yevgenia tell AFP that her mother would be freed in the next months.
The 50-year-old Tymoshenko was convicted of exceeding her authority in the signing of a gas deal with Russia in 2009 that the current government says was overly advantageous to Moscow and cost the budget.
EU officials have said they would like to see both Tymoshenko and several others of her jailed cabinet members released by Ukrainian authorities before signing a new Association Agreement with Kiev that marks the first step to membership.
Yanukovych -- who narrowly defeated Tymoshenko in a bitter presidential election last year -- admitted on Thursday that his rival's arrest was hurting his country's image.
"Is this issue hurting Ukraine's European integration? It is," Yanukovych said in comments posted on the president's website.
"Do I like it? No," he said.
The case spelled out by the SBU alleged to show a complex scheme under which Tymoshenko's company United Energy Systems had first secured Ukraine's state pledge to cover the company's debts owed to the Russian defence ministry.
Tymoshenko is accused of then transferring that money to her own bank card and then Lazarenko's accounts in Swiss banks.
The SBU official said that Tymoshenko and Lazarenko were also involved in "criminal collusion" to organise opaque schemes to transfer profits from Russian gas imports onto foreign accounts.
The case is legally separate from the abuse of power charges but -- crucially -- the two issues have been linked by figures close to Yanukovych in his Regions Party.
The Interfax-Ukraine news agency said Energy Minister Yuriy Boiko and leading Regions Party figure Inna Bogoslovska have both alleged Tymoshenko felt compelled to sign the 2009 gas deal as she had an outstanding personal debt to Russia of $405 million.
It said the criminal case was opened following complaints filed by Ukrainian Prime Minister Mykola Azarov and Russian Defence Minister Anatoly Serdyukov. The Russian defence ministry has yet to comment.
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