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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 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 on 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 announcement comes as Ukraine's opposition leaders, including boxer Vitaly Klitschko and nationalist Oleg Tyagnybok, are expected later Sunday to lead a protest in Kiev calling for the resignation of Yanukovych amid growing political tensions.
The Yanukovych statement said the decree was in line with ongoing 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 of them would be freed later Sunday, it added. "Today this decree will be implemented in full measure," the prisons administration said in a statement.
The presidential decree came after Ukraine's high court earlier this week rejected an appeal by Lutsenko against his four-year jail term for abuse of office and embezzlement.
He was arrested while walking his dog in the capital Kiev in December 2010 and was set to remain in prison until the end of 2014.
According to his family and lawyers, Lutsenko's health has gravely deteriorated while in detention and in January he underwent an on operation on his intestine.
Lutsenko's lawyer Alexei Baganets praised Yanukovych for pardoning the former interior minister.
"This is an act of clemency in relation to a man who was illegally arrested, charged and convicted."
"To a degree, this is the president's apology to this man," Baganets told AFP, adding that Western pressure on Yanukovych has helped to free Lutsenko.
Yanukovych pardoned Lutsenko after appeals 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 early 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.
The imprisonment of Tymoshenko and Lutsenko has led to a crisis in ties between Kiev and the European Union, which has complained that Ukrainian authorities are selectively prosecuting opponents of the president.
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.
The presidential statement made no mention of Yanukovych's top nemesis, jailed former prime minister Tymoshenko who analysts say is unlikely to walk out of prison any time soon.
"Tymoshenko is highly likely to remain in prison. I am a pessimist here," Vladimir Fesenko, head of Penta think tank, told AFP.
"Yanukovych is unlikely to release her taking into account the long sentence she's got and Yanukovych's attitude towards her."
He added that by pardoning Lutsenko, Yanukovych wanted to show Brussels that Ukraine was still keen to move closer to Europe.
"By pardoning Lutsenko, the president decided to show progress in fulfilling EU conditions," he said.
Tymoshenko, who lost a heated presidential election to Yanukovych in 2010, was jailed for seven years in 2011 for overstepping her authority while prime minister by agreeing a gas deal with Russia.
A spokeswoman for Yanukovych was not immediately available to answer questions about Tymoshenko's fate.