Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych has pardoned a close ally of jailed former premier Yulia Tymoshenko, his office said on Sunday, amid tensions with the opposition and pressure from the European Union.
Yanukovych made the decision to pardon former interior minister Yuriy Lutsenko after repeated requests from leading EU figures. But he has ruled out pardoning Tymoshenko.
"Yanukovych signed a decree pardoning six convicted people, including Ukraine's former interior minister Yuriy Lutsenko and Ukraine's former environment minister Georgy Filipchuk," his office said in a statement.
The imprisonment of Tymoshenko and Lutsenko has drawn strong criticism from the United States while EU leaders have refused to sign an important trade agreement with Kiev until they were released.
The European Union hailed the pardon for Lutsenko and Filipchuk but indicated it expected more from the Ukrainian authorities.
"(It's) a first but important step to deal with selective justice," Stefan Fule, the European Commissioner for Enlargement and European Neighbourhood Policy, said on his Twitter account.
The opposition Fatherland party to which Tymoshenko belongs welcomed the release of Lutsenko, whom it described as a "political prisoner".
The pardon was announced ahead of a Kiev protest later Sunday by Ukraine's opposition leaders, including boxing champion Vitaly Klitschko and nationalist Oleg Tyagnybok, who are calling for Yanukovych's resignation.
Yanukovych's statement said the decree was in line with reforms of the country's criminal legislation "aimed at humanising legal norms and reducing the number of people held in custody."
Ukraine's prisons administration said of the six people pardoned by Yanukovych four people, including Lutsenko, were currently behind bars.
All would be freed later Sunday, it added in a statement.
Lutsenko was arrested while walking his dog in the capital Kiev in December 2010 and had been sentenced to remain in prison until the end of 2014 after being convicted of abuse of his office and embezzlement.
Ukraine's high court on Wednesday rejected an appeal by Lutsenko.
According to his family and lawyers, Lutsenko's health has gravely deteriorated while in detention. He is said to have contracted hepatitis, and be suffering from pancreatitis and other illnesses. In January he underwent an operation on his intestine.
Lutsenko's wife Irina told AFP Sunday she was on her way to pick up her husband from his remote prison in the country's north.
"We are on our way, there's an entire motorcade here, his friends are here too," she said.
His lawyer, Alexei Baganets, said of the pardon: "To a degree, this is the president's apology to this man."
He said it was "as an act of clemency in relation to a man who was illegally arrested, charged and convicted."
Baganets said that the Western pressure on Yanukovych helped free Lutsenko.
Lutsenko's detention led to entreaties to Yanukovych from special envoys of the European Parliament monitoring mission to Ukraine, former Polish president Aleksander Kwasniewski and former president of the European Parliament Pat Cox.
Yanukovych in March had promised that he would consider pardoning Lutsenko, 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," Yanukovych had said.
Yanukovych made no mention of Tymoshenko in his statement. A spokeswoman for the president was not immediately available to answer questions about Tymoshenko's fate.
Analysts, though, said she is unlikely to be freed any time soon.
"Yanukovych is unlikely to release her taking into account the long sentence she's got and Yanukovych's attitude towards her," said Vladimir Fesenko, head of the Penta think tank.
He said that, by pardoning Lutsenko, Yanukovych wanted to show Brussels that Ukraine was still keen to move closer to Europe.
Tymoshenko, who lost a heated presidential election to Yanukovych in 2010, was jailed for seven years in 2011 on charges of overstepping her authority while prime minister by agreeing a gas deal with Russia.