BRUSSELS -- European Union officials have criticized a Ukrainian court decision to sentence former Interior Minister Yuriy Lutsenko to four years in prison after finding him guilty of embezzlement and abuse of office.
The court also ordered the confiscation of Lutsenko's property. The ruling said Lutsenko failed to observe proper procedures in hiring and paying a close acquaintance while serving as interior minister from 2007 to 2010.
Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt said the verdict casts doubt on the independence of the Ukrainian judiciary.
"I think it further proves the point that the legal system in Ukraine is now used to criminalize what are essentially political activities," he said, "and sort of increases our concerns on that particular point."
A joint statement by EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton and Enlargement Commissioner Stefan Fuele said the ruling shows that Ukrainian trials "do not respect international standards" of the rule of law.
British Minister for Europe David Lidington called the decision "deeply concerning" and said it "calls into question" Ukraine's commitment to European integration.
Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski called the sentence "disproportionate."
"As far as I know, [Lutsenko] is being accused of a relatively trivial offense. And so it seems that this is a disproportionate and harsh system," Sikorski said. "In other words, it is another argument for those who suspect the Ukrainian judicial legal system is not entirely free of political motivations."
In Washington, U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told journalists that the United States is "disappointed."
"We urge the government of Ukraine to free Mr. Lutsenko and other senior former government officials currently in detention," Nuland said.
Lutsenko, a close political ally of jailed former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, has consistently denied the charges against him.
Tymoshenko is serving a seven-year sentence in a prison in the eastern city of Kharkiv after being convicted of abuse of office in December.
The European Union and the United States have condemned the prosecution of Tymoshenko and Lutsenko as politically motivated acts by their opponents.
With contributions from Rikard Jozwiak in Brussels, RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service, Reuters, and Interfax