(Moscow) – The Ukrainian authorities should conduct a prompt, impartial, and thorough investigation into allegations that Yulia Tymoshenko was beaten by guards at the penal colony where she is being held, Human Rights Watch said today. Tymoshenko, the former prime minister, is serving a seven-year prison sentence at the Kachanovskaya penal colony in Kharkiv, in eastern Ukraine, on charges of exceeding her authority while in office. Human Rights Watch also expressed concern that Tymoshenko’s October 2011 prosecution and conviction were politically motivated.
On April 22, 2012, Tymoshenko’s lawyer made a statement to the media that, on April 20, guards had beaten Tymoshenko, who is suffering from ongoing spine-related health problems, as they were forcibly transferring her to a hospital from the penal colony. The guards twisted her arms and legs and hit her in the stomach, causing her to faint, the lawyer said. At the hospital, she refused a proposed treatment for her spinal problems as she believed it was not appropriate, the lawyer said, and was returned to prison on April 22.
“It is outrageous that Tymoshenko may have been beaten to force her to go to a hospital against her will,” said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “These allegations should be investigated and anyone responsible for ill-treatment should be prosecuted.”
On April 24, a representative of the office of the Ukrainian ombudsman visited Tymoshenko in prison and documented injuries consistent with physical abuse, including bruising on her upper body and abdomen. Following the visit, the Ombudsman’s Office issued an official statement asking the Prosecutor General’s Office to initiate a criminal investigation into the allegations of mistreatment. The Ombudsman’s Office also asked the State Penitentiary Service of Ukraine to provide urgent medical help to Tymoshenko for her spinal problems.
The State Penitentiary Service denied allegations of mistreatment. The district prosecutor’s office confirmed that Tymoshenko’s transfer to the hospital was carried out against her will, but contended that that the force used by the penal colony guards was justified and complied with Ukrainian law.
According to media reports and numerous public statements by Tymoshenko’s lawyer, Tymoshenko started experiencing spine-related problems soon after her arrest in August 2011. She was transferred in December to the penal colony, where her health continued to deteriorate rapidly. In February, Tymoshenko refused the medical treatment offered to her in detention on the grounds that she did not trust the Ukrainian Penitentiary System doctors, and requested access to a trusted doctor. She also asked to be allowed to go to Germany for treatment. The colony’s administration denied both requests.
Later in February, a group of Canadian and German doctors were allowed to examine Tymoshenko and concluded that her health problems were serious and systemic and required appropriate treatment. They also concluded that the local hospital in Kharkiv is not sufficiently equipped to provide appropriate treatment, necessitating treatment elsewhere.
The Ukrainian government has the obligation to provide adequate medical care to anyone in custody. Human Rights Watch called on the government of Ukraine to find a solution ensuring that Tymoshenko receives appropriate care as a matter of priority.
October 2011 Trial and Sentencing
Tymoshenko was sentenced to seven years in prison on charges of exceeding her authority during her most recent term as prime minister, from 2007 to 2010. The charges stem from a gas contract Tymoshenko brokered between the Ukrainian state oil and gas company, Naftogaz, and the Russian company, Gazprom, in 2009, and her approval of a directive to sign the contract without first getting the approval of the Cabinet of Ministers. Tymoshenko’s defense contended that she did not personally benefit financially from the gas deal and that her actions did not constitute a crime.
Leading Ukrainian human rights groups as well as international organizations expressed concern that the charges against Tymoshenko were politically motivated. Evgeniy Zakharov, the co-chair of the Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group, a leading human rights organization that monitored Tymoshenko’s trial, told Human Rights Watch that his organization viewed the case against her as orchestrated by the authorities to remove a prominent opposition leader from the political scene. He also concluded that Tymoshenko’s trial was marred by procedural violations. For example his monitors observed that her counsel was consistently denied sufficient time to prepare her defense.
Arkadiy Bushenko of the Ukrainian Helsinki Human Rights Union believes that the conviction does not have a sound legal basis because the actions for which Tymoshenko was convicted do not constitute a criminal offense.
“I see no other reason behind this prosecution than to get rid of the strongest opposition leader and weaken the opposition in the country in general,” Bushenko told Human Rights Watch.
In its 2012 World Report, Human Rights Watch criticized Ukraine’s judicial system for lack of impartiality and expressed concern that Tymoshenko’s conviction and the arrest and trial of other former government officials had undermined the public’s confidence in the judiciary’s independence.
Tymoshenko had appealed the verdict, but the Kyiv Court of Appeal upheld the decision in December. In January, Tymoshenko appealed that decision to the Higher Specialized Court of Ukraine on Civil and Criminal cases. Her appeal is pending, with a hearing scheduled for May 15.
“There is no doubt that the motivation behind the decision to prosecute Tymoshenko is highly suspect,” Williamson said. “It may be that she was put on trial for making a judgment that the current administration disagrees with rather than committing a criminal act. Such a misuse of the criminal law undermines the very core of the rule of law. ”