Sunday, 11 November 2012
YouJail: My Mother's Video Hell In Orwellian Prison, By Deposed Ukraine PM's Daughter Yevhenia Tymoshenko
KHARKIV, Ukraine -- The grainy video footage reveals a woman frail yet unbowed. In a series of intimate scenes we see her in her dressing gown; moving with the aid of a walking frame; performing her daily exercises. We cannot see her face but the flaxen hair is instantly recognisable, certainly to the millions of Ukrainians who watched this footage first on YouTube and then on their television screens. For this is their former Prime Minister, Yulia Tymoshenko, in her cell in the Central Clinical Hospital No 5 in Kharkiv, known locally as the Ukrainian Siberia. At least six cameras record every minute of the opposition leader's day. Already a gross invasion of privacy, last month video captured by the cameras was uploaded on to the internet in a bid to humiliate her in the run-up to the country's parliamentary elections. Though in prison, she still forms the main opposition to the President, Victor Yanukoych. Last week, Tymoshenko's daughter Yevhenia, 32, travelled to Britain to meet with human rights lawyer Geoffrey Robertson to put together an appeal to the European Court of Human Rights. She also came to plead for David Cameron's help, admitting that she wakes each morning terrified that this will be the day she learns her mother has died. Yevhenia is her mother's daughter, with the same blonde locks, penetrating brown eyes and determination. 'My mother is under 24-hour surveillance. It is like a mental torture. They're trying to break her morale, to get her to give in and say, “I'm out of politics.” ' Tymoshenko, the heroine of Ukraine's Orange Revolution, was sentenced to seven years in prison in October 2011 for supposedly abusing her powers as Prime Minister when she forced through a 2009 gas deal with Russia. The charges are widely acknowledged to be politically motivated, a way of removing her from public life. But 51-year-old Yulia refused to go quietly. Still head of her Fatherland party, she denounces the president as a crook and a dictator. In jail, she has been refused treatment for a serious spinal condition, and was attacked by prison guards in May, provoking worldwide condemnation. It is for this reason that Yevhenia believes the authorities are trying to crush her mother. 'She's isolated from family, colleagues, friends: she's not given access to the phone. It's illegal to deny her phone calls but they do. All the time, in the cell, she has video cameras. She has done since her arrest, but the number of devices has increased exponentially.' Yevhenia says her mother has been denied every last vestige of privacy. 'We organised for her to have physio for her back. It meant she had to undress. The camera was over the bed. She asked if they would cover it during the treatment. They refused so she refused to have the treatment.' Yulia was first held in jail in Kiev, before being transferred to Kharkiv. Yevhenia says of the cameras in her mother's cell: 'Whenever she finds a spot where they can't see what she's doing, maybe where she can crouch down so she can't be seen, they put another one there.' Yulia's family and supporters learnt there were six cameras keeping watch on her at all times. 'We appealed to the court and the penitentiary said, “Yes we know about these six cameras but the other three we don't know who put them there.” ' The authorities deny putting the footage in the public domain, yet it has been used by her opponents to suggest that Yulia's medical condition is not as bad as she has suggested. Yevhenia is incensed by such doubts. 'This is outrageous. They're trying to say, “Look, here she is doing exercises, there is nothing drastic.” I tell you what is drastic. One guard showed her a hidden camera, above her shower. So they always see her, even in the shower, the toilet, everywhere.' After the footage went on YouTube, all the TV channels in Ukraine, which are owned by oligarchs linked to the president, began broadcasting it. In another clip, Yulia bangs on a door. Yevhenia says the release of the video proved to be a mistake by her mother's enemies. She explains: 'She has the right to meet with her party colleagues every month. Before the elections it was very important but, when they arrived, the guards wouldn't let them in. So in protest she started banging. The people loved it, they said we see her spirit, she still has her strength and power to fight.' Yanukoych won the election amid allegations of flagrant vote-rigging. Yulia is determined to oppose the results, which were described by international observers as a 'backward step for democracy'. Many countries have spoken out against Yanukovych's regime, but Britain has been markedly silent. Yevhenia says: 'We're really trying to understand the position of the UK Government. Since her arrest my mother's political team have met so many people, so many prime ministers, presidents, from Spain, Greece, Italy, Germany, Sweden. They have all been so helpful.' Maybe through this interview I could appeal to Prime Minister Cameron to meet Yanukovych or his foreign minister to talk about this. 'It would be a signal to the Ukrainian government that we cannot accept this violation of human rights, these election violations of everything democracy should stand for. 'We would really appreciate it if the Prime Minister would give this case attention and make his opinion public. That would really help us in our fight.' The day after the October 29 election, Yulia announced she was going on hunger strike and has only had water since. Yevhenia says: 'I went to see her and asked her to stop but she's determined. No one can talk her into giving up. 'For her it's the only thing she can do, to protest. She cannot talk, she cannot appeal, her voice is blocked. She said, “You understand if I don't do it, people who voted for me, the democratic opposition, will be disillusioned. By me doing this I am showing them I will fight to the end for their rights.” Sacrificing her freedom was one of the costs – really high costs – she paid for this.' But Yevhenia has paid too. Her father, Oleksandr Tymoshenko, had to leave Ukraine before he was arrested and was granted asylum in the Czech Republic. Educated at Rugby and the LSE, Yevhenia ran two restaurants in Ukraine but has rented them out so she can devote herself to the campaign. She never takes a break and can reel off articles of the Human Rights Act the way others might talk about books or films. She travels the world, lobbying for her mother, but insists she will never go into politics. She's already lost too much to it. 'I try not to think deeply about this,' she says, her composure crumbling for a second. 'Because if I start then I will lose my hope, my power to go on. Our only dream is to have her back, for us to be left alone as a family. I want her to go back to being a mum, but she's always been, for as long as I can remember, fighting and choosing not easy roads.' Each day Yevhenia dreads it might be the day her mother dies. She says: 'Every morning I wake up with a feeling of horror. Until I – or somebody – goes to see her, that horror doesn't go away. ' At 12 o'clock, that's the earliest time we can see her. Until then, each morning, it's critical. She doesn't have any contact with us. If something was to happen to her, nobody would notify us, they would probably try to cover their tracks. 'That is why I'm appealing to David Cameron for help. 'Britain has stood for justice for centuries. We always aspire to their standards, especially on human rights. We need their help to release not only my mother but all political prisoners in Ukraine. Because their lives are in danger.'