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A Ukrainian judge ruled Saturday that jailed opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko could not be tried in absentia and delayed her hearings in a new tax evasion case until May 21.
The unexpected decision came as international concern mounted over the fate of the former pro-Western prime minister after she declared a hunger strike to protest her alleged beating by three prison wardens.
“The court has ruled that it is impossible to hear the case in the absence of Tymoshenko,” Judge Kostiantyn Sadovsky told the hearing after reporting that Tymoshenko could not attend the trial due to chronic back pain.
Around 1,000 chanting supporters of the 2004 Orange Revolution leader rallied outside the district court building in the eastern city of Kharkiv where she has been serving a seven-year prison term since last year.
About the same number of her opponents held a counter-protest in a sign of how divisive the fiery 51-year-old remains after a spell in government that began with hopes of pro-Western reform and ended amid complaints of corruption.
The court was about two-thirds full when four state prosecutors prepared to lay out new tax charges against that could keep her behind bars until 2023.
“The authorities have been forced to officially admit that Yulia Tymoshenko is in a bad state of health,” triumphant defence attorney Serhiy Vlasenko told reporters after the court session closed.
Fellow defence team member Olexander Plakhotnyuk said he would insist that hearings against Tymoshenko could not resume “until her complete recovery.”
The saga surrounding Tymoshenko's health and her refusal to be treated by Ukrainian doctors for fear of being infected with a disease or poisoned has raged for months and culminated in her dramatic move to a local clinic last weekend.
Tymoshenko declared a hunger strike on April 20 after being allegedly beaten by wardens who took her against her will for treatment at a state hospital.
She had been complaining of chronic back pain since her imprisonment and cited this as the reason when skipping the pre-trial hearings earlier this month.
Tymoshenko's lawyer Vlasenko said Friday that Tymoshenko “is eating nothing and only drinking water” and remained bedridden.
Her supporters have also released photographs showing two large bruises on Tymoshenko's abdomen and several more on her left arm that they say confirm the prison attack.
The scandal has sparked a growing chorus from EU officials for Europe's football authorities to strip Ukraine of the right to co-host with Poland the Euro 2012 championship - an event held once in only four years Äthis summer.
European Union Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding on Friday said she could not attend the opening ceremony of the tournament in Ukraine for what she said were “institutional reasons.”
“You cannot close your eyes on human rights, even during a great sporting celebration,” Reding said.
German President Joachim Gauck has also turned down an invitation to attend an official meeting in Ukraine's Black Sea Yalta resort next month.
But UEFA chief Michel Platini countered Friday that the tournament was awarded to Ukraine when Tymoshenko was on the verge of taking office as prime minister in 2007 and could not be moved on account of politics alone.
“Of course it is difficult when the political situation is unstable. Ukraine has had five sports ministers in five years. But what should we do?” Platini told Germany's Die Welt newspaper. - Sapa-AFP