KHARKIV, Ukraine – Ukraine's imprisoned former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko went on trial Monday on charges of evading several million dollars in taxes 15 years ago, despite strong Western protests against the prosecution of the country's top opposition leader.
Tymoshenko, 51, is already serving a seven-year sentence on charges of abuse of office and is the subject of a slew of other criminal investigations, including a murder case.
The West has sharply condemned her prosecution as an attempt to sideline a political opponent. Top Western leaders are boycotting the Euro 2012 championships in Ukraine in protest.
Tymoshenko has accused President Viktor Yanukovych, her longtime rival, of jailing her to keep her out of politics.
She did not appear in court in the eastern city of Kharkiv on Monday because she is hospitalized due to a spinal condition, which is causing her constant and debilitating pain.
Tymoshenko is charged with evading 30 million hrvyna ($3.75million; euro3 million) in taxes when she headed an energy company, Ukraine's United Energy Systems, in 1997-1999, according to the Kommersant newspaper. The Prosecutor's Office declined to comment on the report until the charges are made public in court.
"Tymoshenko's absence today at this event is logical: She should not be here, because she is innocent," Andriy Kozhemyakin, a lawmaker from her party, told reporters as hundreds of Tymoshenko's supporters and opponents rallied outside the courthouse.
Tymoshenko was convicted in October of overstepping her authority while overseeing a natural gas import contract with Russia, which the court deemed harmful for the Ukrainian economy.
Tymoshenko's health has significantly deteriorated since the jailing and she was diagnosed with a herniated spinal disk. Ukrainian authorities insisted for months that Tymsohenko's condition was satisfactory. Last month, they finally bowed to Western pressure and allowed her to be treated at a local hospital under the supervision of a team of German doctors; Tymoshenko does not trust government-appointed physicians.
Dr. Lutz Harms, one of the doctors from Berlin's Charite Hospital who have been examining Tymoshenko, was quoted in Monday's Berliner Morgenpost newspaper as saying that from his observations of her in May and two weeks ago, the former prime minister is not fit for trial.
"From a medical perspective based on my time there, Yulia Tymoshenko was not capable of taking part in a trial," he was quoted as saying. "Her pain must be treated with medication. She was not able to sit on a chair for an extended period of time. Also sitting for the transport to the courtroom would be a problem."
After a brief session Monday, the Kharkiv court adjourned the trial until July 10 and ordered a medical examination of Tymoshenko to determine whether she is fit to stand trial.
The decision drew anger from Tymoshenko's supporters, who said it ignores the German doctors' diagnosis. Tymoshenko's lawyer Serhiy Vlasenko said that requiring proof of an illness for somebody who is already hospitalized and undergoing treatment is a cynical attempt to "drag Tymoshenko into the court."
"They've already played democracy by beginning to treat Yulia Volodymyrovna and now democracy is over," Vlasenko said, using Tymoshenko's patronymic.
Danilova reported from Kiev, Ukraine. David Rising in Berlin contributed to this report.