May 08, 2012, 03.42 PM | Source: Reuters
UKRAINE-TYMOSHENKO:Ukraine's Tymoshenko, on protest fast, readies for hospital
KHARKIV, Ukraine (Reuters) - Ukraine's jailed opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko kept up a hunger strike on Tuesday as authorities prepared to transfer her from prison in the eastern city of Kharkiv to a local hospital for treatment for back pains by German doctors.
Tymoshenko's transfer from Kharkiv's Kachanivska prison to a hospital about 12 km (7 miles) away was the latest twist in a case which has embittered the former Soviet republic's relations with the West and dented its international image.
Tymoshenko, 51, a former prime minister, says she is the victim of a vendetta by her rival, President Viktor Yanukovich, who beat her narrowly for the presidency in February 2010.
She launched her hunger strike on April 20 in protest over what she said was brutal mistreatment in prison. She alleged prison guards beat her during a forced visit to hospital and her supporters circulated photographs showing bruises on her arms and abdomen. The authorities deny any mistreatment.
But the allegations have revived outrage in the West, which says her trial and seven-year prison sentence for alleged abuse-of-office were politically motivated.
Yanukovich has not made any public comment on her plight, but has refused to intervene and release her saying he has to respect the decision of the courts.
The affair has hurt Ukraine's image before it co-hosts the month-long European soccer championship, a prestige event meant to be a showcase for Ukraine as a modern European nation.
Several European Union politicians now say they will boycott Euro-2012 activities in Ukraine.
Tymoshenko's family and lawyers say she is suffering from crippling back pains that require attention. But she has refused treatment by state-provided doctors, saying she distrusts them.
After authorities refused last week to release her to go abroad to Germany for treatment she tentatively agreed to be treated at a local hospital in Kharkiv under the supervision of German doctors.
Tymoshenko, a firebrand politician who was a driving force behind the 2004-2005 Orange Revolution street protests that doomed Yanukovich's first bid for the presidency, has managed to focus Western attention on her plight even as his government prepares to co-host the tournament.
As German doctors arrived in Kharkiv to examine the hospital facilities and meet Tymoshenko, her supporters geared to maximise publicity from her plight and keep the focus on her state of health.
One immediate question was whether she would maintain her hunger strike while she was being treated by the German doctors.
"She has not abandoned her hunger strike and she will not abandon it until the question of her situation has been resolved," one of her lawyers, Olexandr Plakhotnyuk, told reporters outside the prison on Tuesday.
"She is drinking only water. What will take place next will be decided after she meets doctors today."
Plakhotnyuk said her health had worsened because of the hunger strike. "Her blood pressure has dropped and I was there when they took her temperature. It was 35.7," he said.
A crowd of her supporters began gathering outside the prison. Some pasted up stickers on the prison walls proclaiming solidarity with her. One read "Ukraine will triumph!", another declared: "Not guilty!"
Arriving on Monday night in Kharkiv, German doctor Lutz Harms said the course of treatment might depend on what effect the hunger strike had had on her health.
Asked whether he felt she should be treated in Germany rather than Kharkiv, Harms said: "If I see that the hospital facilities are not adequate then I will recommend this (treatment abroad)."
Ukrainian authorities have already ruled this out, however.
The European Union, partner in Ukraine's declared drive to European integration, has condemned Tymoshenko's conviction on abuse-of-office charges last October as an example of selective justice. It has shelved landmark deals on political association and free trade with Ukraine over the issue.
Some European politicians have cancelled plans to visit Ukraine on May 11 for a gathering on Central European issues in the southern resort of Yalta.
Despite Western pressure to get her released, authorities have only brought to court fresh tax evasion charges against her which carry a sentence of up to 12 years.
(Writing By Richard Balmforth Editing by Maria Golovnina)