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Leaders Threaten Euro 2012 Boycott Over Alleged Ukraine Abuses

Henry Ridgwell

A number of European leaders say they plan to boycott the Euro 2012 football tournament next month in Ukraine to protest the alleged mistreatment of the country's former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko, who is currently in jail.  A new report also raises concerns about the conduct of the Ukrainian police, just as the country prepares for the arrival of soccer fans from across Europe.

May Day brought communist demonstrators onto the streets Tuesday in Kiev - as news of the threatened Euro 2012 boycott spread. Marchers voiced their support for Yulia Tymoshenko and for the boycott - 15-year-old Serhiy was among them.

"It is not right, of course, what they are doing with Yulia Tymoshenko," he said.  "Everybody needs to sort it out, and that she is being defended by the European Union is right."

Key Dates for Tymoshenko

1995-1997: President of United Energy Systems of Ukraine
1996: Becomes member of Ukraine's parliament
1999-2001:
Deputy prime minister in charge of energy
2004:
Co-leads Orange Revolution that secures presidential victory of Viktor Yushchenko
2005:
Prime minister, relationship with Yushchenko becomes strained
2007-2010:
Prime minister, signs controversial gas deal with Russia
November 2010:
Loses presidential election to Victor Yanukovych
December 2010:
Charged with misusing state funds
May 2011:
Charged with abuse of power for Russian gas contract
October 2011:
Sentenced to 7 years in prison for abuse of power

Photos show former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko, who is on a hunger strike, with bruises on her arms and stomach that she says were inflicted by prison guards - a charge the government denies.  She is serving a seven-year sentence for abuse of office, charges she says are politically motivated.

The photos prompted several European leaders and ministers, among them the entire Dutch government and the president of the European Commission, to pledge a boycott of next month's Euro 2012 soccer matches in Ukraine.

Germany's Environment Minister Norbert Roettgen urged others to join.

"At the moment I do not think it is feasible for ministers or state prime ministers to take part as visitors [in Euro 2012] because I fear this poses the danger of justification of a regime, a dictatorial regime," said Roettgen.

Other European leaders, including the foreign ministers of Germany and Sweden, have rejected calls for a boycott.

Ukraine analyst Orysia Lutsevych, of the London-based research group Chatham House, says a boycott would hurt all Ukrainians.

"I think there could be better ways around sending a signal and putting pressure on the government other than a boycott," said Lutsevych.  "By having so many journalists in the country and by having so many celebrities in the country we can raise an issue of human rights and democracy in another way."

As Ukraine rushes to complete its new stadiums in time for June, the government hopes Euro 2012 will be a showcase for the country with up to a million visitors expected.

But a new report is raising concerns about the the conduct of the Ukrainian police force.   

Max Tucker of human-rights group Amnesty International points to CCTV footage posted on the Internet, allegedly showing police beating a man in a bar before forcing him to hand over $2,500.  Tucker says the police service needs urgent reform.

"Police are torturing people in order to extract a confession, in order to kind of extort money or simply because of the ethnicity or sexual orientation of the person that they have in custody," said Tucker.

Opinion across Europe appears divided; some argue a Euro 2012 boycott would serve to raise awareness of alleged abuses in Ukraine, while others say the presence of so many foreign journalists and visitors will put a spotlight on the country, perhaps leading to change.

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