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Tymoshenko Team, Prison Officials Spar Over Bright Lights

Yulia Tymoshenko's cell in Kharkiv, in an official photo
Yulia Tymoshenko's cell in Kharkiv, in an official photo
What kind of conditions is Yulia Tymoshenko facing in jail? It all depends on whom you ask.

Prison officials say the former Ukrainian prime minister is enjoying European-standard comforts at the Kachanivska Penal Colony No. 54 in Kharkiv, where she was transferred one day before New Year's Eve to serve a seven-year sentence for abuse of office.

A press release issued by Ukraine's State Penitentiary System says Tymoshenko's prison cell "meets all European requirements and standards of detention," and comes equipped with everything from a microwave oven to a washing machine and even a bidet.

Accompanying photographs show a spacious, well-lit room that looks more like a comfortable middle-class apartment than a jail cell.

But Tymoshenko's defenders say conditions in the Kharkiv cell are nothing short of torture. Lawyer Serhiy Vlasenko, speaking January 3 outside Kachanivska, said the 51-year-old former prime minister is suffering sleep deprivation and profound stress in a cell that is kept brightly lit and under 24-hour surveillance.

A video grab shows jailed opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko in a cell in prison in Kyiv.
A video grab shows jailed opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko in a cell in prison in Kyiv.
"This will be the subject of an appeal to the Council of Europe's Committee for the Prevention of Torture," Vlasenko said. "[There is] 24/7 camera surveillance and light in the face and the impossibility of sleeping properly and the absence of medical help. All this has one aim only: to psychologically and physically break Yulia Volodymyrivna [Tymoshenko]."

A Clean But Well-Lighted Cell

There have so far been no outside witnesses to support either side's account of Tymoshenko's treatment. But if true, Vlasenko's claims of round-the-clock, relentlessly bright lights and insufficient medical help appear to contravene European standards regarding prisoner treatment.

Prison officials do not deny that Tymoshenko's cell, which she shares with a fellow prisoner, remains lit on a 24-hour basis. Ivan Pervushkyn, the head of the Kachanivska colony, told RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service that cells are routinely kept well lit in order to facilitate surveillance. Prison officials say Ukrainian law stipulates that all prison cells are equipped with video cameras and "sleep-mode" lighting in order to ensure the continuous supervision of inmates. But they haven't addressed whether the light in Tymoshenko's cell is adjusted to "sleep mode" at night.

Tymoshenko's prison in Kharkiv
Tymoshenko's prison in Kharkiv
The European Committee for the Prevention of Torture (CPT) -- whose guidelines on prison conduct set the standard for the Council of Europe's 47 member states, including Ukraine -- stipulates that inmates should have access to the proper air quality, heating, and lighting needed to sleep comfortably.

Several Council of Europe states have come under CPT censure for using round-the-clock lighting in prison cells. Some states defend the practice in instances of surveillance when the inmate is considered a suicide risk.

Prison officials in Ukraine say Tymoshenko is subject to surveillance because she remains under investigation for additional criminal charges.

Her lawyers protested the release of a video in late December that showed Tymoshenko lying in bed in jail in Kyiv.

Health Concerns

European guidelines also aim to protect the right of inmates to adequate medical care. Fifty-one-year-old Tymoshenko, who has complained of a range of health concerns since she was first detained in Kyiv in August, says she has been denied the right to independent medical care. Penitentiary officials in Kharkiv say the former prime minister has turned down an opportunity to be examined by prison doctors.

The CPT, which last paid a routine visit to Ukraine in 2009, has urged the country to adopt new medical standards that would permit the Health Ministry, rather than the Justice Ministry, to provide medical professionals working in the country's prison system.

Such an arrangement, says the CPT, would better ensure the well-being and privacy of inmates.

In addition to its routine visits, the CPT has carried out occasional ad-hoc trips to Ukraine. The most recent, which lasted from November 29 to December 6, was aimed at investigating conditions in pretrial detention centers, in Kyiv and Kharkiv.

The visit came during the time that Tymoshenko was being held in the Lukyaniv detention center. The CPT has not commented, however, on whether it met with Tymoshenko during the course of its visit.

The CPT does not release its recommendations, which are nonbinding, to the public.

Written by Daisy Sindelar in Prague
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