UK Politics

UK ministers boycott England games in Ukraine

Riot police next to a Euro 2012 poster at an opposition demonstration in Kiev on 5/6/2012
England will play two of their group games in Donetsk and one in Kiev

UK government ministers will boycott England's group games in the European football championships in Ukraine over the country's human rights record.

The UK is particularly concerned at the "selective justice" meted out to jailed opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko.

Other EU nations have also threatened a boycott of the tournament being jointly hosted with Poland.

Ukraine's ambassador to the UK said "sport and politics do not mix" and concerns must be raised in other ways.

Ms Tymoshenko played a key role in the Orange Revolution in 2004 and says her imprisonment, for alleged corruption, is an act of political revenge by Ukraine's President Viktor Yanukovych.

The authorities have rejected Ms Tymoshenko's allegations. She was jailed for seven years in October, for abuse of power during her time as prime minister.

'Rule of law'

Last week, she ended a 20-day hunger strike after being moved to a hospital in Kharkiv where she is being treated by a German doctor.

The UK Foreign Office said no officials would attend the three group games and it was keeping attendance at later stages of the tournament "under review in the light of ministers' busy schedules ahead of the Olympics and widespread concerns about selective justice and the rule of law in Ukraine".

Asked about the boycott, Foreign Secretary William Hague said Ukraine had "serious problems" and the UK government did not want its backing for the England team to be interpreted as "giving political support to some things which have been happening in Ukraine which we don't agree with".

The BBC News Channel's chief political correspondent Norman Smith said the move was a "serious diplomatic snub" for Ukraine - which is hoping to use the tournament to boost tourism and showcase the country to the rest of Europe.

Ukrainian foreign ministry spokesman Oleg Voloshin said Britain's concerns were understood, but the boycott would only damage football and would not affect Ms Tymoshenko's case.

'International championship'

And Ukraine's most senior diplomat in London said he was "unaware" the decision was linked to the treatment of Ms Tymoshenko.

"As far as the rule of law and selective justice, there are other forums where these can be discussed and sport and politics don't mix together," Volodymr Khandogiy told the BBC.

He added: "It is their free choice not to go but they should see the issue in the context that this is not about a Ukrainian championship. They are not going to an international championship and they are not supporting their team."

If England are to reach the final of the tournament, they must play at least five games in Ukraine.

Should they get through to the knock-out phase, they will play their quarter final in either Donetsk or Kiev. If England come second in their group and go on to win the quarter final, their semi-final will be in Donetsk. The final is to be held in Kiev.

UK Sports Minister Hugh Robertson would normally have been expected to go the group games, but was occupied with Olympic duties, the Department of Culture Media and Sport said.

"No final decision had been taken about which ministers were to go," said a spokesman.

The English team arrived at their base in the Polish city of Krakow on Wednesday ahead of their first game in Donetsk, against France, on Monday.

Asked for his reaction to the boycott, senior Football Association official Adrian Bevington said "we can only focus on our plans".

Ms Tymoshenko's daughter Eugenia this week told BBC News she "understood" the political boycott but wanted the tournament to go ahead.

"We understand the political boycott of European leaders who protect the rule of law, who respect human rights, who cannot go there and shake Yanukovych's hand. But I think sports events should go on... My mother, when she was in government, fought for the right to host this championship in Ukraine."

Polish warning

Poland has warned that the European Union should not push Ukraine into the arms of Russia through a boycott.

Yulia Tymoshenko
Yulia Tymoshenko is being treated in hospital after ending a three-week hunger strike

President Bronislaw Komorowski told Polish state television: "We feel that Ukraine is somewhere between a choice of integration with the Western world... or a chance to participate in a customs union proposed by Russia.

"From this point of view, Poland has well-grounded fears that it [boycotting] might result in Ukraine choosing a political route alternative to the process of European integration."

Labour are backing the government's stance.

"It is right that UK ministers will not be attending the championships and the government should take care that none of their actions over the next few weeks are seen to endorse the conduct of the government of Ukraine," shadow foreign secretary Douglas Alexander said.

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