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EU warns Tymoshenko verdict will hit Ukraine ties

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(BRUSSELS) - The EU warned Ukraine Tuesday that a verdict against ex-premier Yulia Tymoshenko risked having "profound implications" in its bid to seal an accord with the bloc as Kiev came under fire for the trial.

"The EU is deeply disappointed with the verdict," EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said in a statement.

"The EU will reflect on its policies towards Ukraine."

As rights groups slammed the seven-year sentence against the opposition leader as a politically-motivated verdict delivered by a biased court, Ashton called for impartiality in a pending appeal.

Ukraine must "ensure a fair, transparent and impartial process in any appeal in the case of Ms Tymoshenko and in the other trials related to members of the former government."

In a hint of compromise, President Viktor Yanukovych said the verdict was "not the final decision".

"There is the court of appeal ahead and what decision it will take and under which legislation has great importance," he said.

Amnesty International said the conduct of the three-month abuse of power trial "casts doubts over the independence of the judiciary" and dubbed the prosecution of the Orange Revolution leader as "politically motivated".

"In a democracy, judgement about political decisions should be left to the parliament and to voters, not to courts," said Council of Europe secretary general Thorbjoern Jagland.

In her statement, Ashton warned Ukraine that the handling of upcoming cases or any breach of the rule of law "risks having profound implications for the EU-Ukraine bilateral relationship, including for the conclusion of the association agreement."

Ukraine has been negotiating an association accord with the 27-nation bloc it hoped would be signed off in December.

In Moscow, the Russian foreign ministry said there was "a clear anti-Russian subtext to this entire story."

"In essence, Y.V. Tymoshenko was put on trial for a current and binding agreement between Gazprom and Naftogaz Ukraine that was never annulled by anyone," it noted.

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin said he was bewildered by the seven-year sentence handed to Tymoshenko.

And Ukrainian boxing star Vitali Klitschko called the sentence an act of "political hara-kiri" which would harm Kiev's EU bid.

Klitschko, who has earlier broken off training for a world championship fight to battle for the Orange Revolution leader's release, urged Yanukovych to stop persecuting his opponents.

"The verdict against Tymoshenko cannot be called anything but political hara-kiri of the Ukrainian authorities," he said in a statement released by his political party.

EU officials had warned for weeks that the trial could jeopardise Yanukovych's dreams of EU integration.

"Political show-trials have no place in our Europe," said Sweden's Foreign Minister Carl Bildt as his Danish counterpart slammed the verdict as "a serious setback for the rule of law in Ukraine."

The association agreement includes a free-trade deal between the country of 60 million and the European Union's 500-million people and is seen as a first step for the former Soviet state to reach its goal of joining the bloc.

As a judge in Kiev handed down his sentence against Tymoshenko, European parliamentarians meeting Ukraine Foreign Minister Kostyantyn Gryshchenko in Brussels said the country was sliding backwards.

"In any democracy there would've been a political inquiry, not a criminal trial" over the abuse of power allegations levelled at Tymoshenko, said German socialist MEP Martin Schulz.

Gryshchenko had little explanation to offer as MEPs grilling him over the trial accused his government of "systematic retaliation" against opponents.

"Ukraine's ambition is to become a fully-fledged member of the EU," he said.

"There are avenues to appeal this decision," he added of Tuesday's controversial verdict.

"Yulia Tymoshenko herself has publicly stated she does not believe in stopping the association agreement taking effect."

Ashton added in her statement that the verdict against the one-time Orange leader "comes after a trial which did not respect the international standards as regards fair, transparent and independent legal process."

Tymoshenko was sentenced over a 2009 gas deal with Russia on the grounds it caused heavy losses for Ukraine and was criminally motivated.

At talks Monday in Luxembourg, foreign ministers from the 27-nation bloc agreed to continue technical negotiations over the trade and accession agreement with Ukraine but warned that the Tymoshenko trial could hold up a final political agreement.

"We are going to carry on with the detailed technical work," Ashton said after the talks, while adding: "not surprisingly, the ministers expressed great concern on the verdict".

"A conviction would severely endanger Ukraine's hopes of signing an association agreement with the European Union this year," said Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini.


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