Former Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, serving a seven-year prison sentence on abuse-of-office charges, has dismissed new allegations of her involvement in the murder of a parliamentary deputy nearly 16 years ago.
In a statement released yesterday (9 April), Tymoshenko said they were "absurd" and clearly politically driven.
The imprisonment last October of Tymoshenko, the main opponent of President Viktor Yanukovich, has soured Ukraine's ties with the European Union and the United States, which say the case smacks of "selective" justice (see background).
But despite Western pressure for her release, Ukrainian prosecutors have additionally accused her of tax evasion and now say they are investigating her possible involvement in the 1996 contract killing of Yevhen Shcherban, one of the most sensational crimes of post-Soviet Ukraine.
Shcherban, a powerful businessman and politician, died in a hail of bullets as he emerged from a plane in the eastern city of Donetsk. The attackers, disguised as airport mechanics, also killed his wife and several bystanders.
His death followed several other murders in Donetsk, including a football stadium bombing that killed the owner of Shakhtar Donetsk club, and led to a realignment of political and business alliances in the key steel- and coal-producing region.
Both Tymoshenko and Yanukovich were already big players in a turbulent region which seethed with intrigue and where fortunes were made and lost in murky dealings ranging from sales of state assets to protection rackets, extortion and theft.
Tymoshenko was head of the gas trader Unified Energy Systems, which was a major supplier of the fuel in Ukraine, while he was deputy governor of Donetsk and a close ally of other powerful regional leaders.
"Linking me to the Shcherban case is absurd," Tymoshenko said in the statement issued by her party, Batkivshchyna. "I believe that people well understand how poorly this case holds together, who benefits from it and how absurd it is."
State prosecutors say they have evidence that Tymoshenko could be involved in the case, along with Pavlo Lazarenko, who was prime minister at the time and has since been jailed in the United States for fraud and money laundering.
Lazarenko denied any involvement with the murder, calling the accusations "cynical lies". "I have nothing to do with this crime," Interfax news agency quoted Lazarenko as saying in a statement published by his lawyer on Monday.
Shcherban's son, Ruslan Shcherban, who was 19 at the time and survived the attack by hiding under a car, told reporters last week he had evidence implicating Tymoshenko.
Ukraine's state prison service said last week it had moved Vadim Bolotskikh, the man sentenced to life in prison for killing Shcherban and another powerful regional figure, to a detention centre in Kyiv, a move which means he could be questioned by prosecutors or testify in a court.
State prosecutors said on 28 March that Tymoshenko would soon go on trial again on charges of tax evasion. They did not fix a date.
Tymoshenko, 51, was convicted in October of abusing her power as prime minister in forcing through a 2009 gas deal with Russia which, Yanukovich's government says, ran against national interests and made vital imports exorbitantly expensive.
Tymoshenko, who denies any wrongdoing, has been in detention and then in prison since last August, and her lawyers and family say she is suffering from back pains.
The state prison service has offered to move her to a clinic in the city of Kharkiv, where her prison is located, for treatment. But Tymoshenko has refused, saying she will only follow the recommendations of trusted foreign doctors.
Ukrainian and German government officials meanwhile say their governments are in talks with a view to her possibly going to Germany for treatment, but it is not clear if Tymoshenko herself would agree to go.
The Ukrainian Foreign Ministry says doctors from Germany will visit her this week to advise her on treatment.
Tymoshenko was one of the leaders of the 2004 Orange Revolution which doomed Yanukovich's first bid for the presidency and went on to serve twice as prime minister.
But she lost the 2010 presidential election to Yanukovich and after his rise to power Tymoshenko and a number of her allies in opposition faced corruption-related charges in what she has described as a campaign of repression.
Tymoshenko is challenging her initial conviction in the European Court for Human Rights. The European Union has warned Kyiv that its members will not ratify a milestone Ukraine-EU association agreement while she is in prison.