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More than 5,000 protesters rallied in Kharkiv Friday calling for former premier Yulia Tymoshenko to be released from jail in the first major show of opposition in the eastern Ukrainian city where she is serving her sentence.
The protest went ahead despite a local court order banning the demonstration and dozens of public transport vehicles blocking the rally's passage, an AFP journalist on the scene reported.
Tymoshenko, who lost a heated presidential election to Viktor 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.
A new fraud and tax evasion trial against Tymoshenko has dragged on for nearly a year in Kharkiv with hearings repeatedly postponed due to her absence for medical reasons. The opposition leader has denounced the trial as a political vendetta on the part of President Yanukovych.
"The reality is that today we have to fight," boxing champion Vitaly Klitschko, leader of Udar (Punch) party, told the crowd.
Klitschko thanked local residents for "coming to express their position despite threats and intimidation", as he stood on the roof of a van serving as an improvised podium for the opposition leaders after they had to make changes to the planned rally route.
Rally organisers Klitschko, nationalist Svoboda (Freedom) party leader Oleg Tyagnybok and leading opposition figurehead Arseniy Yatsenyuk had planned to hold the protest near the court during a hearing into the tax evasion case against Tymoshenko.
But their march was diverted after the authorities blocked most streets in central Kharkiv with dozens of trams and trolleybuses, as well as roadworks that suddenly started outside the city hall on Friday morning.
Unable to reach the court, the rally gathered over 5,000 people on the city's central square.
Kharkiv authorities opposed the rally, the first major opposition gathering in eastern Ukraine, and asked a court to ban it "in order to protect the interests of the Kharkiv residents," mayor Gennadiy Kernes said.
The court meanwhile postponed the hearing against Tymoshenko until April 23 due to her absence, as the opposition leader's defence demanded that the case against her be closed.
"The court deems impossible to hear the case in the absence of Yulia Tymoshenko and her defender," said judge Konstantin Sadovsky.
On Friday the former prime minister, who is staying in a hospital in the outskirts of Kharkiv with back pain, issued a statement "demanding... to close this totally falsified case".
Tymoshenko's imprisonment has drawn strong criticism from the United States, while EU leaders have refused to sign an important trade agreement with Kiev over the prosecution of her and her allies.
While Yanukovych has issued a pardon for one such ally, former interior minister Yuriy Lutsenko, he said this week that a pardon for Tymoshenko would be "impossible" while court proceedings are ongoing.
Besides her tax evasion trial, Tymoshenko was also accused in January of ordering the 1996 gangland murder of influential lawmaker Yevgen Shcherban.