Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych yesterday (7 April) pardoned two allies of his main foe, ex-prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko, in a move to appease Western critics but gave no sign of being ready to free the imprisoned opposition leader herself.
A senior EU official cautiously welcomed the pardons for former interior minister Yuri Lutsenko and ex-ecology minister Heorhiy Filipchuk as an initial but important step.
The move, made against a backdrop of heightened political tension in Kiev, was the first hint of any relaxation in a campaign against Tymoshenko and her allies in which several of her ministers have been jailed or have fled abroad.
EU leaders have set a May deadline for “tangible progress” to be made on human rights issues in Ukraine, to allow the signature of the EU-Ukraine association agreement at the Vilnius summit of the Eastern Partnership in November.
Lutsenko had been serving a four-year jail term and Filipchuk a suspended two-year sentence, both on convictions for abuse of office. Their pardon followed a parliamentary standoff last week between the re-energised opposition and Yanukovych's Party of the Regions that led to pro-Yanukovych deputies holding a rival session in a separate building.
Lutsenko, 48, who was held at a prison 230 km north of Kyiv, only last week saw his appeal against conviction rejected by a high court.
In a live telephone message played by loudspeaker to an opposition meeting in Kyiv on Sunday shortly after his release, Lutsenko urged opposition supporters to pursue public protests.
"Policy is not made by the presidential administration, nor by parliament. It is made out there on the squares. We triumphed there before and we will triumph there again," he declared, referring to the 2004 "Orange Revolution" protests which doomed Yanukovych's first run for the presidency.
The United States and the EU say prosecutions of Tymoshenko and former members of her government are politically motivated.
The EU has made their release a condition for signing deals on trade and political association with Kyiv, and has said those agreements could be shelved for years unless progress is made on justice and other issues by next month.
In a message on Twitter, Štefan Füle, the EU's enlargement and neighbourhood commissioner, welcomed Yanukovych's pardoning of the ex-ministers as a "first but important step to deal with selective justice".
Despite Sunday's decree, Yanukovych showed no signs of clemency for Tymoshenko, who is serving a seven-year prison sentence also for abuse of office, but the pardons for Lutsenko and Filipchuk are likely now to swing the focus onto her fate.
The peasant-braided, 52-year-old one-time heroine of the "Orange Revolution" came close to beating Yanukovych in a bitter run-off for president in February 2010 and is regarded as his fiercest challenger.
She says her prosecution is an act of political vengeance.
But Ukrainian authorities have shown little sign of relenting in her case. Indeed, apart from the charge for which she is currently in prison, she is also being prosecuted for alleged embezzlement and tax evasion.
Separately, pre-trial hearings are being conducted in a third case against her over allegations she ordered a contract killing of a local businessman and parliament deputy in 1996 – a charge which carries a sentence of life imprisonment.
Tymoshenko has denied all charges against her.