Ukraine's jailed ex-PM goes on hunger strike

Serhiy Bobok
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Yulia Tymoshenko, pictured in 2011

Ukraine's jailed opposition leader and former premier Yulia Tymoshenko, pictured in 2011, has been on a hunger strike to protest her treatment by prison wardens and doctors, her lawyer said

Ukraine's jailed ex-premier Yulia Tymoshenko has been on a hunger strike for the past five days to protest her treatment and demand an end to political repression, her lawyer said Tuesday.

"Yulia Tymoshenko began a hunger strike on Friday," her lawyer Serhiy Vlasenko told AFP after visiting Tymoshenko in the eastern city of Kharkiv where she has been jailed since last year on abuse-of-office charges.

"It's an unlimited hunger strike. She is calling for an end to political repressions in Ukraine," her lawyer said.

The flamboyant but divisive 2004 Orange Revolution leader was jailed for seven years for negotiating a gas deal with Russia while prime minister in 2009 that the new administration says was against Ukraine's interests.

Tymoshenko, 51, has complained of ill health in jail and asked to have treatment abroad. She began her hunger strike after she said she was forcibly taken to a local hospital on Friday evening.

Her lawyer Vlasenko read out a statement in which Tymoshenko complained of being beaten by prison staff and dragged to an ambulance against her will.

"Three strong men came up to my bed, threw a sheet on me and then started pulling me off the bed by force. In my pain and despair I defended myself as I could, and I received ... a strong blow in the stomach," Tymoshenko said in the statement.

"They tied up my arms and legs and ... dragged me out in the sheet," she said. "I thought it was the last minutes of my life."

Her lawyer told journalists outside the prison earlier that "her arms were covered with bruises and she had a large bruise on her stomach, which is still visible four days after it happened."

Tymoshenko has complained of debilitating back pain that last week kept her from attending the start of a new trial on tax evasion charges that could see her time in jail extended from seven to 12 years.

She has expressed fears that local doctors could poison her or infect her with a disease and demanded that the hospital be checked by a team of German doctors who examined her in prison earlier this year.

Ukrainian authorities have already been forced to deny suggestions that they were in any way linked to the 2004 poisoning of former president Viktor Yanukovych, a close Tymoshenko ally during the pro-democracy protests.

Yanukovych's face became disfigured in the incident, and another top colleague of Tymoshenko developed hepatitis in prison after being tried and jailed by the new authorities.

Local prosecutor Hennadiy Tyurin confirmed Tuesday that Tymoshenko had refused to go to the clinic voluntarily.

"She got her things together, got dressed and then lay down in bed and said: 'I am not going anywhere'," Interfax quoted Tyurin as saying.

"According to the law and the criminal administrative code, the prison service has the right to use physical force," Tyurin said.

"They took her in their arms, carried her to the vehicle and took her to hospital," the chief Kharkiv prosecutor said.

Tymoshenko's high-profile prosecution cast a shadow over Ukraine's relations with the European Union and prevented the signing of a partnership agreement that the ex-Soviet nation hoped to secure on the way to eventual membership.

The West criticised the original trial that put her in prison as selective justice, while Tymoshenko has branded the case the result of a political vendetta being waged by her triumphant presidential rival Viktor Yanukovych.

But prosecutors have brushed aside the complaints and have since launched several new tax fraud and graft cases against Tymoshenko relating to her tenure in the 1990s as head of a private natural gas trading firm.