10/11/2011 04:45 EDT | Updated 12/11/2011 05:12 EST

Ukraine's former prime minister found guilty of abuse of office, gets 7 years in jail

KIEV, Ukraine - Former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, a popular opposition leader who once symbolized Western hopes for a democratic Ukraine, was convicted of abuse of office and sentenced to seven years in prison Tuesday in a verdict condemned by the U.S. and European Union as politically motivated.

The charismatic politician denounced the court even before the judge finished speaking. She compared it to the 1930s purges and show trials of Soviet dictator Josef Stalin and promised Ukrainians: "I will always be with you."

Tymoshenko's conviction bodes ill for Ukraine's aspirations to shake off Russian influence, integrate more closely into the West, and eventually join the 27-nation European bloc.

The verdict capped a chaotic trial that started in late June and saw scuffles between Tymoshenko's supporters and opponents in the courthouse. She called Judge Rodion Kireyev a "monster" and refused to rise when addressing him — leading to her arrest Aug. 5 on charges of contempt of court.

The court found Tymoshenko guilty of abuse of office in the signing of a natural gas import contract with Russia in 2009, saying she lacked an official authorization for the deal and had agreed to a price that was too high for Ukraine's economy.

Tymoshenko, 50, has maintained her innocence, saying that as prime minister she did not need any special permission to order the signing of the deal. She says her actions helped end a bitter pricing dispute between Moscow and Kyiv, which had led to energy supply shortages across Europe.

The government of President Viktor Yanukovych — a longtime foe of Tymoshenko — had insisted that the contract she signed should be renegotiated in favour of a lower price.

In finding her guilty, Kireyev read a long summary of the case, saying she inflicted damages of some 1.5 billion hryvna ($190 million) on the national gas company by signing the import contract with Russia. He fined her that amount, sentenced her to seven years in prison and banned her from occupying government posts for three years after the end of her prison term.

Tymoshenko, he said, used her power as prime minister "for criminal ends and, acting consciously, committed actions which clearly exceeded the limits of rights and powers."

During the ruling, Tymoshenko constantly chatted with her daughter, Eugenia, and fiddled with her iPad. Clad in an elegant beige dress, the former prime minister's blond hair with her trademark braid was visibly dark at the roots — a testament to the past two months she spent in jail as part of the trial.

Tymoshenko rose from her seat to address a courtroom packed with reporters, interrupting Kireyev while he was reading the ruling. She alleged that Yanukovych wrote the verdict himself to sideline her in the upcoming parliamentary and presidential elections.

"The year 1937 has returned to Ukraine with this verdict and all the repression of citizens," she said, referring to Stalin's purges, trying to outshout the judge. "As for me, be sure that I will not stop my fight even for a minute."

Earlier she had told reporters: "Nobody — not Yanukovych, not Kireyev — can disgrace my honest name. I have worked and will continue to work for Ukraine's sake."

As Kireyev left the courtroom, Tymoshenko's husband, Oleksandr, yelled out that the judge would someday get a similar verdict. A Tymoshenko supporter shouted "Shame!"

Tymoshenko, a former gas company executive who amassed a fortune in the post-Soviet era, said she would contest the ruling in the European Court of Human Rights and her lawyers said they would appeal in local courts.

The White House condemned the verdict as a "politically motivated prosecution" and urged Ukrainian authorities to ensure the release of Tymoshenko and other opposition members.

"The charges against Mrs. Tymoshenko and the conduct of her trial, as well as the prosecution of other opposition leaders and members of the preceding government, have raised serious concerns about the government of Ukraine's commitment to democracy and rule of law," the White House statement said.

EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton warned that a failure to ensure a fair appeals process for Tymoshenko would have "profound implications" for Ukraine-EU relations.

Apparently responding to those concerns, Yanukovych suggested the verdict was not final since Tymoshenko would lodge an appeal. He also hinted that changes to the country's legal system could turn her case around.

Some analysts believe Tuesday's decision could be reversed, giving Tymoshenko the chance to walk free and take part in elections next year.

"A compromise is still possible," said political analyst Oleksiy Haran. "She gets the guilty verdict and Yanukovych's sense of revenge is satisfied, but then she is released and allowed to stand in elections."

Chaos reigned outside the central Kyiv courthouse, where dozens of black-helmeted riot police in full gear were deployed to prevent violence at competing rallies by hundreds of supporters and opponents of Tymoshenko. Police buses were parked on the capital's main street, paralyzing traffic.

After the verdict, dozens of demonstrators clashed with a row of riot police, but they were quickly pushed away.

Tymoshenko helped lead the 2004 mass street protests against Yanukovych's fraud-tainted election victory that year in an uprising dubbed the Orange Revolution.

Those demonstrations drew hundreds of thousands to Kyiv's central square, the Maidan, setting the stage for the Supreme Court to order another vote, which was won by Tymoshenko's ally, Viktor Yushchenko. Those developments were welcomed in the West as a sign of democratic reform in the former Soviet republic.

But Yanukovych staged a comeback, narrowly defeating Tymoshenko in a 2010 presidential vote amid public disenchantment over economic woes and infighting in the Orange camp.

The trial has helped unite Ukraine's fractured opposition, but experts said the verdict was unlikely to draw the kinds of mass street protests seen in 2004. As reforms stalled and economic hardships hit, many Ukrainians have become disillusioned with Orange leaders and with politics in general.

Russia's Prime Minister Vladimir Putin insisted Tuesday the deal he struck with Tymoshenko conformed to both Russian and Ukrainian law.

"I don't quite understand why she was sentenced to seven years," he said in televised comments during a visit to China.