Court Convicts Ukraine’s Former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko

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Former Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko (R) listens as Judge Rodion Kireyev of the Kiev Pechersky court reads the verdict to her on October 11, 2011. (Photo: Sergei Supinsky / AFP / Getty Images)

The judge read out the guilty verdict, and Yulia Tymoshenko’s supporters shouted “Shame!”

This afternoon a court ruled that Tymoshenko, Ukraine’s former Prime Minister, had acted against the national interest when she signed a natural gas deal with Russia in 2009, leading to $190 million in damages to Ukraine’s state-run gas company. The judge sentenced her to seven years in prison—the maximum penalty allowed—and banned her from running in next year’s elections. It’s a harsh—but not altogether surprising—end to a controversial trial which Tymoshenko has described as a “political lynching” led by President Viktor Yanukovych.

Tymoshenko greeted the verdict with the same steely defiance that turned her into the heroine of the 2004 Orange Revolution, in which she helped expose Yanukovych’s fraudulent election victory. She irritated the 31-year old judge by repeatedly addressing reporters while he delivered his lengthy ruling, which was spread out over several hours. “We will fight and defend my good name in the European court,” she said. “We have to be strong and defend Ukraine from this authoritarianism.” She went on to say that Yanukovych had returned Ukraine to 1937—the height of Stalin’s oppression in the Soviet Union. Rather than focusing on the judge, she spent much of the afternoon staring at her iPad. Her wrap-around hairbraid seemed to be cinched tighter than ever.

Catherine Ashton, the E.U.’s foreign policy chief, condemned the ruling almost immediately. “The verdict comes after a trial which did not respect the international standards as regards fair, transparent and independent legal process,” she said. “This unfortunately confirms that justice is being applied selectively in politically motivated prosecutions of the leaders of the opposition and members of the former government.”

The chorus of rebukes complicates Ukraine’s efforts to integrate with Europe at a time the country had been making substantial progress. Ukraine is scheduled to hammer out the final details of an Association Agreement with the E.U., which would pave the way for a free trade zone, on Oct. 20. Sources within the E.U. now say a diplomatic snub of the Brussels meeting is a strong possibility. Even if a meeting does take place, E.U. leaders will find it more difficult to sign on the dotted line. As Ashton said in her statement, Tymoshenko’s conviction “risks having profound implications for the E.U.-Ukraine bilateral relationship, including for the conclusion of the Association Agreement, our political dialogue and our co-operation more broadly.”

Besides harming Ukraine’s relations with the E.U., fallout from the Tymoshenko trial could drive a wedge between Yanukovych and Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. It’s not just that Putin is thought to prefer Tymoshenko as a partner for — rather than as an imprisoned opponent of — Yanukovych. It’s that her trial revolved around a gas deal conducted with Russia, and more specifically with Putin himself. Yanukovych may have hoped the trial would encourage Russia to revisit the terms of that agreement. Instead it appears to have left Putin slightly bewildered. “I do not really understand what Tymoshenko has been jailed for seven years for,” he told reporters in Russia. “Tymoshenko herself did not sign anything. All the contracts were signed between Gazprom and Naftogaz.”

Aware of the anger sweeping through corridors from Brussels to Moscow, Yanukovych suggested that the verdict could still change—and that his political rival could walk free. “Today the court took its decision in the framework of the current criminal code,” he said. “This is not the final decision.” Last month, Yanukovych’s Regions Party hinted that it would explore the option of decriminalizing an article under which Tymoshenko has been charged. That could be ready by the time she appears before an appeals court.

Given today’s outcry from world leaders, Tymoshenko won’t be the only one on trial.

William Lee Adams is a staff writer at the London bureau of TIME. Find him on Twitter at @willyleeadams or on Facebook. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.

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