UKRAINE’S president has ordered a thorough probe into the alleged beating by prison officials of jailed former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, following deepening Western criticism.
Tymoshenko, 51, the country's top opposition leader, began a hunger strike nearly a week ago to protest at the alleged violence.
She claims that prison guards punched her in the stomach and twisted her arms and legs while transporting her to a local hospital against her will to be treated for a spinal condition. Tymoshenko was soon returned to jail after refusing treatment from state doctors at the clinic.
Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych made his statement about Tymoshenko hours after German President Joachim Gauck cancelled a visit to Ukraine next month and opposition politicians in Germany urged their government to boycott the Euro 2012 football championship that Ukraine will host in June.
European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton also said that she is "deeply preoccupied" by what is happening to Tymoshenko and called on Ukraine's government to properly examine her complaints. Ashton asked that the EU ambassador in Ukraine be allowed to visit Tymoshenko in prison.
Some observers doubted, however, if Yanukovych was sincere in his instructions to prosecutors to investigate the handling of Tymoshenko, since an investigation was already conducted this week and prosecutors concluded that Tymoshenko was not abused.
Tymoshenko is serving a seven-year prison term on charges of abusing her powers during negotiations about gas supplies with Russia. The West has strongly condemned the verdict as politically motivated and threatened to freeze co-operation with Ukraine.
Tymoshenko denies the charges, saying they are part of a campaign by Yanukovych, her long-time foe, to bar her from politics. Yanukovych, who narrowly defeated her in the 2010 presidential race, has denied involvement in the Tymoshenko case and said the investigations against her are part of an anti-corruption effort.
The opposition leader is suffering from a severe spinal condition, and a group of German doctors who examined her said she needs urgent treatment at a specialised medical clinic. Instead, she was taken against her will on Friday night to a local clinic in Kharkiv. She refused treatment and was moved back to prison on Sunday.
Tymoshenko has been refusing food for nearly a week and her health is deteriorating, according to her spokeswoman. Prison officials said she may be force-fed. Germany has been particularly critical of Ukraine over the Tymoshenko case and the government in Berlin is offering to treat her in Germany.