Ukraine high court rejects appeal by jailed Tymoshenko ally

Ukraine's high court on Wednesday rejected an appeal by former interior minister Yuriy Lutsenko, a close ally of jailed opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko, against his four-year jail term for abuse of office and embezzlement.

The High Specialised Court of Ukraine confirmed the sentence, meaning that Lutsenko, who has complained of health problems, will stay in prison until the end of December 2014, an AFP correspondent reported.

Lutsenko was arrested while walking his dog in Kiev in December 2010 and has been held in jail ever since.

His imprisonment and that of Tymoshenko has led to a crisis in relations between Kiev and the European Union, which has complained that authorities are selectively persecuting opponents of President Viktor Yanukovych.

However the court left Lutsenko's punishment unchanged and made the largely cosmetic ruling to reduce his fine from 58,000 euros ($74,000) to 55,000 euros.

His wife Iryna told reporters at the court that the process was a "circus".

"From today when can close down all the circuses and attractions because there is nothing more like a circus than this court hearing," she said bitterly.

During the hearing at the court in central Kiev, Lutsenko denounced his prosecution as "political".

"This affair has been thoroughly dreamt up by investigators and stems from a political order," said Lutsenko, 48, who like Tymoshenko was a prominent figure in the 2004 Orange Revolution uprising.

According to his family, Lutsenko's health has gravely deteriorated while in detention and in January he underwent an operation on his intestine.

Lutsenko's lawyer Igor Fomin told reporters that the case could go no further in Ukraine and the defence would now go to the European Court of Human Rights and await its decision.

Prosecutor Nikolai Kurapov meanwhile said that the court's decision showed that Lutsenko's guilt had been proven.

However Yanukovych promised in early March that he would consider pardoning Lutsenko once the appeal process in Ukraine was exhausted, while ruling out a similar move for Tymoshenko.

"I have known Yuriy Lutsenko for a long time and I am sorry for him as a person. He is suffering from the stupidities he committed... I am not happy that he is suffering," Yanukovych said.

"When the appeal court hearing ends, if it does not free him, I will review the issue of his pardon," he said on March 1.

Lutsenko was jailed for four years in February 2012 for embezzlement and abuse of office -- crimes related to extra pay he awarded his official driver.

Tymoshenko -- loser of a heated 2010 presidential election to Yanukovych -- was jailed for seven years in 2011 for overstepping her authority while prime minister by agreeing an unattractive gas deal with Russia.

She now also faces new charges of embezzlement and even co-organising the murder of a lawmaker in 1996.

Both politicians' cases have drawn strong criticism from the United States while EU leaders have refused to sign an important trade agreement with Kiev until they are released.

Ukraine's opposition is meanwhile showing new signs of life after October parliamentary elections, mustering thousands of people on Tuesday for the biggest protest against the Yanukovych-led authorities this year.

The elections were won by the ruling Regions Party but brought lawmakers from the UDAR party of boxer Vitali Klitschko and the nationalist Svoboda into parliament for the first time.