The husband of Ukraine's jailed former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko has been granted political asylum in the Czech Republic, amid concerns by her supporters that family members may be targeted in a mounting pressure campaign.
Czech Interior Minister Jan Kubice told reporters on January 6 that the ministry had approved Oleksandr Tymoshenko's application for asylum. Tymoshenko, 51, is currently in the Czech Republic and applied for asylum last year.
"Mr. Tymoshenko filed a request for political asylum with the Interior Ministry several months ago," Kubice said. "A standard procedure was followed, and the result is that [the asylum] was granted today."
The decision comes as Yulia Tymoshenko, the two-time prime minister of Ukraine and the figurehead of its 2004 Orange Revolution, is in the early months of a seven-year sentence for abuse of office.
Yulia Tymoshenko, a bitter enemy of President Viktor Yanukovych, was convicted in October 2011 and recently transferred to a penal colony
in the eastern city of Kharkiv.
Ratcheting Up Pressure
Supporters say the charges were politically motivated and accuse prison officials of subjecting the former prime minister to ill treatment. They also claim Ukrainian authorities have sought to intimidate the former premier by ratcheting up pressure against friends and family members.
A lawyer for Yulia Tymoshenko, Serhiy Vlasenko, told journalists outside the prison in Kharkiv where she is being held on January 6 that "after the authorities understood that they could not break [Yulia] Tymoshenko personally, they started trying to influence her by opening criminal cases against her family."
"These are the criminal cases that were closed by the Supreme Court back in 2005," Vlasenko said. "We understand quite clearly that it is illegal. We understand that the only goal is to influence Yulia Volodymirovna [Tymoshenko]. That is why Oleksandr Gennadievich [Tymoshenko] made this decision in order to minimize the influence of the Ukrainian authorities."
Her party also responded with allegations of official harassment to hurt the former prime minister.
"Yanukovych has taken a dirty path, seeking to break Yulia Tymoshenko through pressure on members of her family," her Batkivschyna (Fatherland) party said in a statement. "The decision to seek political asylum is prompted by the desire to deprive the regime of additional leverage against the leader of the Fatherland party."
Yulia Tymoshenko is flanked by her husband, Oleksandr, and her daughter, Yevhenia, react after the verdict was anounced in a district court in Kyiv in October.
This is the second recent case in which the Czech Republic, seen as a staunch defender of human rights in its former Soviet-bloc neighbors, has granted asylum to a high-profile Ukrainian citizen.
Czech authorities last year granted asylum to Bohdan Danylyshyn
, who served as Ukraine's economy minister in Tymoshenko's cabinet in 2007-10. The move led to a chill in ties between Prague and Kyiv and prompted a flurry of diplomatic expulsions by both sides.
'Ukraine Had A Fit'
Speaking to Czech Radio on January 6 before the decision was announced, Czech Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg said he hoped the ruling on the Oleksandr Tymoshenko case would not provoke fresh animosity.
"Some regimes react that way. As we know, there was one case of an action we were aware of and approved, and Ukraine had a fit about it for some time," he said.
Contacted by RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service after the Czech announcement, the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry declined to comment on the ruling.
But in a statement issued earlier on January 6, the ministry said Ukraine "fully respects the principles of law and respects basic human rights and liberties. As a result, we see no grounds for Ukrainian citizens to seek asylum in other countries."
Oleksander Tymoshenko (right) shakes hands with an acquaintance in Kyiv in August.
Oleksandr Tymoshenko, unlike his charismatic, publicity-savvy wife, has remained largely out of the limelight during their 32-year marriage. He was a constant presence at Tymoshenko's trial last year but does not give interviews or comment publicly on his wife's political career.
His current business interests include a stake in a Czech-based firm, International Industrial Projects, based in the northern city of Usti nad Labem. He has officially foresworn most of his business activities in Ukraine, citing undue pressure from the state.
Resurrecting The Case
Oleksandr and Yulia Tymoshenko both came under intense scrutiny in 2000 in connection with alleged financial crimes committed while she was head of Ukraine's state power company in the 1990s.
Oleksandr Tymoshenko was charged and held in custody in relation to the case, but never convicted.
Prosecutors are currently preparing to resurrect the case, prompting speculation that Ukrainian officials are seeking to extend Yulia Tymoshenko's jail sentence and prosecute her husband as well as part of their crackdown on her family circle.
Attention has extended to the couple's daughter, Yevhenia Carr, who has been very active in her mother's case.
Pro-government analysts have suggested that Carr may seek to head the Fatherland party list when Ukraine holds parliamentary elections in October. But Carr told RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service that she has no intention of taking on a political role.
"Any suggestion that I'm planning to stand for election is provocation on the part of those who want to reverse my efforts to protect my mother at a time when her life and health are in jeopardy," she said. "My only goal is to protect my mother in the ways I have at my disposal right now."
written by Daisy Sindelar, with agency reports