Ukraine's Tymoshenko refuses to attend new tax trial

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image captionTymoshenko was jailed in October for abuse of power during a 2009 gas deal

Imprisoned former Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko is refusing to attend a new trial for tax evasion, citing problems with her health.

Tymoshenko, who is said to have been suffering months of back pain, asked the court to hold its preliminary hearing on Thursday in her absence.

She denies wrongdoing as head of a gas trading company in the 1990s.

She is serving seven years in prison for abuse of office, a conviction which caused dismay in the West.

The new trial is being held in the eastern city of Kharkiv, where she is serving her sentence.

About 1,000 people, both supporters and opponents of the former prime minister, have gathered outside the courthouse with about 300 police officers keeping order, Ukrainian broadcaster 5 Kanal TV reports.

'Politically motivated'

In a statement posted on the website of the Ukrainian state penitentiary service, Tymoshenko said: "Using my rights stipulated by the Ukrainian Criminal Code, I request that the preliminary hearing of the case be conducted in my absence owing to my poor health."

However, her lawyer, Serhiy Vlasenko, said he was not sure she would not be brought to the court hearing anyway.

"Unfortunately, the current authorities have created a situation when it is considered to be normal to bring a person to a court on a stretcher," he told Russia's Interfax news agency.

Tymoshenko is accused of misappropriating public funds during her time as head of United Energy Systems of Ukraine (UESU) in 1997-8.

Her lawyer has called the allegations politically motivated.

"All that Tymoshenko is charged with is that when she was an MP she allegedly gave oral instructions to the UESU accountant," he said.

"The accountant denies it, Tymoshenko denies it, there is no evidence of this, but the authorities are taking advantage of all the propaganda opportunities to tell a different story."

Her conviction of abuse of power last year relates to a 10-year gas deal with Russia she signed in 2009, when she was still prime minister.

Prosecutors said Tymoshenko had not obtained cabinet approval to sign and that the deal had been ruinous for the Ukrainian economy.

She denies wrongdoing but lost an appeal against the verdict in December. She says her trial was political revenge by President Viktor Yanukovych, a former rival.

EU and other Western states say the investigations against her are politically motivated and observers believe the issue has overshadowed talks on co-operation between Ukraine and the EU.

She is serving her sentence in Kachanivska prison, Kharkiv, having been moved there from a Kiev detention centre in December.

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