KIEV, Ukraine, March 1 (UPI) -- A prison sentence handed to former the Ukrainian internal affairs minister is more evidence the country doesn't respect human rights, critics say.
Yuriy Lutsenko was found guilty of embezzlement and abuse of office Monday in Kiev's Pecherskyy District Court and was sentenced to four years in prison, fined and banned from holding public office, Ukraine officials announced.
The court found Lutsenko, who served from 2007-09 with former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, guilty of providing his driver taxpayer-funded perks, including an apartment and a public pension, as well as overspending on public celebrations while a governmental decree on budget-cutting was in effect, a parliamentary leader of the ruling Party of Regions said.
Volodymyr Oliynyk, first deputy chairman of the Ukrainian Parliament's committee on legislative support of law enforcement, said losses to the state were estimated at $110,000.
"The court's ruling in Lutsenko's case served as a message to each state official -- anyone can be held liable for the abuse of power," Oliynyk said.
Lutsenko denied any wrongdoing and claimed his prosecution was politically motivated. His fate was similar to that of Tymoshenko's, whose trial last year resulted in a seven-year sentence for abuse of office.
Lutsenko's lawyers say they will appeal the verdict and take their case to the European Court of Human Rights.
Tymoshenko's sentence was met with worldwide protests and has hampered Ukraine's efforts at economic integration into the European Union and the ruling against Lutsenko has triggered a similar reaction.
It garnered quick denunciations from EU foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton and Stefan Fule, EU commissioner for Enlargement and European Neighborhood Policy.
"We are disappointed with the verdict against Mr. Lutsenko, which signals the continuation of trials in Ukraine which do not respect international standards as regards fair, transparent and independent legal process," they said in a statement.
Promising to closely monitor the appeals process, Ashton and Fule noted that an EU-Ukraine summit in December established that "respect for the rule of law will be of crucial importance for the speed of Ukraine's political association and economic integration with the EU."
Tymoshenko's case has soured relations between Ukraine and the European Union and has resulted in the delay of a long-sought "association agreement" and comprehensive free trade deal between the parties.
Brussels regards parliamentary elections scheduled for October as key test in measuring democratic standards in Ukraine.
Fule, speaking this week at a Brussels conference organized by the European Policy Center think tank, called Kiev's progress on "selective justice," business climate and constitutional reform "disappointing."
"The need to secure democracy, human rights and the rule of law remains at the very heart of the Eastern Partnership," he said. "Reform in these areas will continue to be non-negotiable and it will be essential that Ukraine demonstrates its firm commitment to these core values."
The Czech Republic was among countries expressing concern over Lutsenko's sentence. Its foreign ministry called the ruling "far-removed from European standards and principles regarding human rights," Radio Prague reported.
Yulia Tymoshenko's husband, Oleksandr, and her former economy minister, Bohdan Danylyshyn, have both been granted asylum in the Czech Republic.
Ukrainian Foreign Ministry spokesman Oleksandr Dikusarov told the Russian news agency RIA Novosti progress toward an association agreement shouldn't be further damaged by the Lutsenko decision.
"We are convinced that the decisions made in the context of our European integration will have a continuation … and we will finally initial a relevant agreement," he said.
The government has introduced a new criminal procedure code that passed its first test in Parliament in February, Dikusarov added.