KIEV, Ukraine, April 9 (UPI) -- The release of former Ukrainian Interior Minister Yuriy Lutsenko from prison over the weekend has drawn praise from opposition leaders and the European Union.
Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych Sunday pardoned Lutsenko and five other convicts, including former Environmental Protection Minister Heorhiy Filipchuk, both of whom served under the still-imprisoned former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko.
In a statement posted on his official website, Yanukovych said he made the moves on humanitarian and human rights grounds, only two days after the European Commission had denounced a ruling by Ukraine's Higher Specialized Court for Civil and Criminal Cases to uphold the verdict against Lutsenko of four years' imprisonment.
Yanukovych said he had granted a request for Lutsenko's release after requests from the Ukraine Parliament's Commissioner for Human Rights Valerie Lutkovska as well as from Pat Cox, head of the European Union's observer mission in Kiev, and former Polish President and Aleksander Kwasniewski.
The statement emphasized the government's desire to satisfy the European Union's demands for reform of Ukraine's judiciary, which Brussels says is politicized against Tymoshenko and her allies in the opposition Batkivshchyna (Fatherland) Party.
The imprisonments of Tymoshenko and Lutsenko posed a major impediment to the successful conclusion of an association agreement with the European Union, which is seeking to forge an "association agreement" free trade regime as well as closer economic and political cooperation between the two sides by this year.
The European bloc is pressing for reforms on the rule of law, respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, good governance, a market economy and sustainable development.
After his release, Lutsenko said he would immediately contact Tymoshenko, who is serving a seven-year sentence after being convicted on charges she abused her power when in 2009 she helped broker a "disadvantageous" natural gas deal with Russian energy company Gazprom.
"I will meet with Yulia Vladimirovna (Tymoshenko) as soon as possible," he told the Ukrainian news agency UNIAN. "For me, it is fundamentally important."
Lutsenko, arrested in December 2010, was found guilty of illegally handing out a government pension to his former driver and of misusing government funds for official celebrations in 2008 and 2009 when he was in office.
The former Interior minister also indicated he would support an opposition candidate for president in 2015 rather than run himself, Interfax reported.
"I am not (running) anywhere," he said. "I was in politics. I have no ambitions for the presidential campaign. I will be in the street, among the people."
He said that he will continue to support Tymoshenko but added he didn't intend to "waste a single day on revenge, I will be working for the future."
The pardons brought praise from EU Commissioner for Enlargement and Neighborhood Policies Stefan Fule, who wrote on his Twitter account, "AT LAST-welcome very much Pres Yanukovych decision 2 pardon Lutsenko & Filipchuk: first but important step 2deal w/ selective justice."
"This is a step in the right direction, which will facilitate the process of transformation of the judicial system in Ukraine, which is necessary for the successful signing of the association agreement," an unnamed EU representative told ITAR-Tass.
The pardons came as a planned protest in Kiev was being carried out by Batkivshchyna, which claimed 20,000 people attended its Rise! Ukraine rally, RIA Novosti reported.
Police, meanwhile, said some 3,000 people participated in the event.
Lutsenko addressed the rally by phone after snow and bad roads prevented him from leaving the prison in time to make the event, Izvestia reported.