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Ukraine leader ready to let ailing Tymoshenko go abroad

Supporters of jailed opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko release white doves during a rally in Kiev on August 5, 2013
Supporters of jailed opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko release white doves during a rally in Kiev on August 5, 2013

Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych announced for the first time Thursday he was ready to allow jailed rival Yulia Tymoshenko to go abroad for medical treatment, as Kiev seeks to remove the key obstacle on the path to a deal with the European Union.

EU leaders have made clear that Ukraine will only be able to sign an Association Agreement -- the first step to eventual EU membership -- at a summit in Vilnius in late November if Tymoshenko, a former prime minister, is released.

"Today Ukraine does not have a law which would allow Tymoshenko to go abroad for treatment," Yanukovych told reporters in the town of Svitlodarsk in the Donetsk region, his eastern stronghold.

"Naturally, if parliament adopts such a bill, I will sign it. Most likely, it will be a court that will take a decision about an exit procedure, about maintaining some guarantees," he added, without giving further details.

Ukraine's single-chamber parliament, the Verkhovna Rada, would have to debate and pass the bill before sending it to the president for his signature.

"Consultants say that this should have been done a long time ago," said Yanukovych.

Later Thursday, Yanukovych's press office quoted him as saying that the parliament had just started putting the bill together.

A handout photo taken on April 25, 2012  shows jailed opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko lying on a bed at the Kachanivska penitentiary colony for women in Kharkiv
A handout photo taken on April 25, 2012 shows jailed opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko lying on a bed at the Kachanivska penitentiary colony for women in Kharkiv

Yanukovych earlier told reporters that lawmakers had already prepared the legislation.

Yanukovych's comments were the first time he has clearly signalled his willingness to free his political nemesis as Ukraine and the EU prepare for the November 28-29 Lithuania summit.

The imprisonment of the opposition leader, who suffers from severe back pain, has been the single major obstacle blocking the broad political and free-trade deal with Brussels at the summit.

Tymoshenko was sentenced in October 2011 to seven years in jail on abuse of power charges, which she has dismissed as an attempt by her rival to remove her from politics.

Yanukovych is believed to be looking for ways to allow Tymoshenko to leave Ukraine without letting her stage a political comeback in the foreseeable future.

The ruling Regions Party is thought to be seeking to rush through parliament legislation that would allow convicts like Tymoshenko to seek medical treatment abroad.

Crucially, even if she is freed, the legislation would likely still leave her unable to take part in presidential polls in 2015.

Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych gives  a press conference at the EU Headquarters in Brussels on February 25, 2013
Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych gives a press conference at the EU Headquarters in Brussels on February 25, 2013

Inna Bogoslovskaya, a parliament member from the ruling party, said lawmakers planned to discuss the bill on Monday. "It will be modelled after Polish legislation," she said.

Earlier this month, special envoys of the European Parliament monitoring mission to Ukraine, Aleksander Kwasniewski and Pat Cox, had formally asked Yanukovych to allow Tymoshenko to be taken for treatment abroad.

According to a long-mooted plan, Tymoshenko could be taken to Berlin's renowned Charite hospital, whose doctors have been among those treating her in the eastern city of Kharkiv.

During a two-day visit to the Ukrainian capital Kiev last week, German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said he believed Ukraine understood the time pressure as the clock ticks down to the summit.

"We still have an opened window of opportunity, and it is not to be excluded that this window of opportunity could also once again close," Westerwelle said.

Tymoshenko has accepted the proposal from the European envoys to be taken for treatment abroad, but stresses that she will not seek political asylum in western Europe and will fight for her "legal rehabilitation".

"Yanukovych does not want to pardon Tymoshenko," Olexiy Haran, a professor at the Kyiv Mohyla University, told AFP.

"The maximum he is ready for is to send her abroad for treatment so that formally she would remain a convict."

The historic political and economic agreement with Brussels is expected to anger Kiev's former Soviet master Russia, which has pushed for Ukraine to join a Moscow-led Customs Union.