Monday, 30 April 2012

Ukraine's Euro 2012 Dreams Turning Dark

KIEV, Ukraine -- Explosions and Western anger over the alleged prison beating of hunger-striking ex-premier Yulia Tymoshenko have turned Ukraine's Euro 2012 dreams into a nightmare just weeks before the kick-off. he former Soviet nation of 46 million had been hoping to use its first major showcase to charm and impress the European fans who plan to trek beyond co-hosts Poland and visit Ukraine's three gleaming new football venues. But things took a tense turn in mid-April when European football boss Michel Platini -- a suave Frenchman who has backed Ukraine's cause from the start -- accused its "bandits and crooks" of hiking up hotel prices to exorbitant rates. Just a week later jail guards admitted using force to move Tymoshenko to a local hospital so she could be treated for a bad back that was keeping her from attending a new trial on tax charges. The new trial could extend Tymoshenko's original abuse of office sentence by five years until 2023. The European Union had called for her immediate release even before the new hearings had begun. The prosecution of the opposition leader has bedevilled President Viktor Yanukovych, accused of seeking revenge after she led the 2004 Orange Revolution protests that stripped him of a tainted election win. Tymoshenko -- her plight viewed far more negatively in Europe than at home -- launched a hunger strike and later posted pictures showing two large bruises on her abdomen that supporters said confirmed her beating claims. "You cannot close your eyes on human rights, even during a great sporting celebration," European Union Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding said. But debate among EU leaders and fans about attending the Ukrainian side of festivities turned more urgent when four home-made bombs went off in the country's industrial heartland on Friday. The unclaimed attack in the eastern city of Dnipropetrovsk -- Tymoshenko's home town -- injured at least 26 people and seemed primarily designed to scare rather than kill. Police said the bombs were not packed with nails or ball bearings that militants use to create deadly shrapnel. There will be no football played in Dnipropetrovsk itself and Platini's UEFA immediately expressed its "confidence in the security measures that have been developed by the authorities." But Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk said he hoped the attacks would be "treated with the utmost seriousness." Ukraine enjoys a vibrant political culture that spills over into periodic protests but has never before led to bloodshed on the scale witnessed on Friday. Many pundits noted that Dnipropetrovsk was the home town of Tymoshenko and wondered whether this was more than a coincidence. Others joined calls to keep the investigation separate from politics. Yanukovych himself took charge of the probe by visiting the stricken city on Saturday and chairing a security meeting at which he announced a $250,000 reward for leads. And a court in the eastern city of Kharkiv where Tymoshenko's new trial was just gathering momentum unexpectedly delayed hearings for three weeks on account of her failing health. Some analysts saw the decision as the first tangible evidence of Yanukovych trying to take pressure off his government ahead of the tournament. They also said Yanukovych might soon be ready to release his rival for treatment abroad in a move that could go a long way towards ensuring the EU's firm backing for Ukraine as the Euro 2012 host. "The Euro 2012 is the year's big event for the government -- bigger than the (October parliamentary) elections," said political analyst Volodymyr Fesenko, arguing that the authorities care more about this than keeping Tymoshenko in jail. "They are not ready to sacrifice it for Tymoshenko," Fesenko said.

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