A Ukrainian court on Wednesday dismissed an appeal by a former interior minister and ally of jailed ex-prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko against his conviction, dashing his supporters' hopes that he might be freed as a concession to the West.
The European Union says the convictions of Yuri Lutsenko, 48, and of Tymoshenko, in whose government he served, smack of selective justice and political vengeance. Both politicians are opponents of President Viktor Yanukovich.
Brussels has told Ukraine it needs to address the issue of politically motivated trials if it hopes to clinch landmark agreements on political association and free trade this year.
But on Wednesday, Ukraine's High Court for civil and criminal cases largely dismissed Lutsenko's appeal against his conviction for embezzlement and abuse of office and his four-year prison sentence.
The High Court, whose ruling cannot be challenged in any other Ukrainian court, agreed only to slightly reduce the financial damages Lutsenko must pay to the state.
"He laughed when he heard the verdict,'' Lutsenko's lawyer Ihor Fomin told reporters as he came out of the courtroom. "We have exhausted all appeals nationally so we are filing this to the European Court [for Human Rights].''
Journalists were not let into the courtroom, where Lutsenko, who denies any wrongdoing, sat inside a glass-and-plastic box.
Although the ruling is final, it does mean that Yanukovich is now free to pardon Lutsenko, an option he has hinted he might exercise this year.
Foreign diplomats say Yanukovich may try to bargain with the EU, agreeing to let Lutsenko go but keeping Tymoshenko - a much more dangerous political foe - locked up as he prepares to run for a second term in early 2015.
Tymoshenko, a leader of the 2004 Orange Revolution protests that derailed Yanukovich's first bid for the presidency, was sentenced to seven years in prison in October 2011 for abuse of office.
Tymoshenko, who has dismissed all the charges against her as politically motivated, also faces a separate embezzlement and tax evasion trial, which has been delayed repeatedly while she is treated for back trouble in a state-run hospital.
In a third case, state prosecutors say they are investigating whether she is connected to a 1996 contract killing of a local businessman and parliamentary deputy.