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A Ukrainian court on Friday launched highly-charged hearings against jailed opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko's attorney that government critics have branded a political show trial.
Former prime minister Tymoshenko's lawyer Sergiy Vlasenko is accused by his former wife of assault -- a case that emerged in November just as Ukraine was deciding whether to sign a historic agreement with the European Union.
President Viktor Yanukovych eventually chose to ditch the EU deal and seek closer relations with Russia in a move that triggered a wave of street protests in the former Soviet country's biggest political crisis in a decade.
Prosecutors first called in Vlasenko for questioning on charges relating to alleged cases of domestic violence dating back several years just days before Yanukovych rejected the Brussels pact.
About 100 opposition supporters rallied outside the Kiev courthouse during Friday's brief hearings that were also attended by Tymoshenko's politically active daughter Yevgenia.
A judge quickly adjourned the case until January 10 due to the absence of Vlasenko's own attorney.
Vlasenko faces up to two years in jail if convicted on both charges of battery and intentionally inflicting light bodily harm.
The 46-year-old was released by prosecutors in November after posting bail of 23,000-hryvna ($2,800, 2,000 euros).
But he has been barred from leaving Kiev except for visits to the eastern city of Kharkiv for consultations with Tymoshenko -- now hospitalised with back pain -- for the duration of the trial.
Vlasenko has denounced the case against him as a "total lie" and "political repression".
"I am only here because am on Yulia Tymoshenko's defence team," he told reporters after Friday's hearing.
Vlasenko said he had been separated from his former wife Natalia Okunskaya for five years and that the two almost never met in that time.
"She is being used," he said. "This is not the first instance of the authorities using small domestic case charges to jail a person for political reasons."
But state prosecutor Dmytro Borzykh said the case against Vlasenko was sound.
Borzykh added that the number of beatings Vlasenko was alleged to have inflicted against his former wife had risen to four.
"These criminal charges have absolutely no relation to politics," he told reporters.
Tymoshenko was herself jailed for seven years in 2011 on abuse of power charges that most Western nations view as a case of selective justice and an effort by the Ukrainian leader to sideline an old political foe.
"A new political show trial is being launched here today against my defence attorney," Tymoshenko said in a letter read out to reporters by her daughter.
"I call on all civil society leaders, human rights campaigners, journalists, members of the opposition and simply those who are not indifferent to do everything in your powers to defend Sergiy Vlasenko," Tymoshenko said.
Vlasenko told reporters that he planned to file an appeal on Saturday asking the Kharkiv prison to ease the terms of Tymoshenko's confinement.
"She has already served a third of her sentence and is eligible for lighter terms of stay," he said.
"She should be allowed to freely visit Kharkiv," Vlasenko said.
The Kachanovskaya penal colony's adminstration is expected to consider Vlasenko's appeal on Saturday.
Tymoshenko was moved from the penal colony to a Kharkiv state-run hospital where she is under guard at all times in April 2012.