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Ukraine reawakens 1990s murder ghosts in Tymoshenko case
KIEV, June 23 (BSS/AFP) - It was November 3, 1996, at the height of the blood-stained chaos that enveloped Ukrainian business in the years after the fall of the Soviet Union.

Ukrainian lawmaker and wealthy businessman Yevgen Shcherban stepped from a passenger jet onto the tarmac of the airport at his native eastern stronghold of Donetsk.

A car pulled up. At least two men in dark glasses rushed out of the vehicle, produced machine guns and pumped bullets at point-blank range into Shcherban and several others accompanying him.

He died instantly, his bloodied corpse languishing on the tarmac for four hours, according to reports at the time. His wife also later died of her wounds.

The contract-style killing of Shcherban was just the most notorious of a series of murders that shook Ukraine and in particular the Donetsk region in the anarchy of the 1990s.

Although over one-and-a-half decades have passed since his murder, the authorities are now showing a new interest in the case as they seek to keep up the pressure on jailed former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko.

Ukraine's deputy prosecutor general Renat Kuzmin said this week he planned to charge Tymoshenko over the murder, which he said was ordered by her disgraced former ally and ex-prime minister Pavlo Lazarenko who is in jail in the US.

"We have enough proof confirming Tymoshenko's implication in this murder and we are intending to present her with charges," Kuzmin told the Ukrainian edition of the Kommersant newspaper.

Kuzmin also linked Tymoshenko to the notorious Kushnir criminal gang who he said were involved in 25 cases of murder and attempted murder.

Tymoshenko's lawyers furiously rejected the new allegations as a desperate attempt by the authorities to pin more charges on the opposition leader amid growing international unease over her case.

Tymoshenko has always said that the seven year jail sentence she is serving for abuse of power is an act of revenge orchestrated by President Viktor Yanukovych who defeated her in the high-stakes 2010 presidential elections.

"They have started inventing all sorts of rubbish to try to show the West that she is a criminal," her lawyer Sergiy Vlasenko told AFP. "They have a savage desire to keep Yulia Tymoshenko in prison, no matter what the pretext."

--- 'Score settling between clans' ---

Ukraine in April 2003 sentenced a Russian national, Vadim Bolotskikh, to life in prison for carrying out the Shcherban murder but the masterminds of the crime have never been found.

Kuzmin said Tymoshenko had an interest in Shcherban's disappearing as he had been impeding her ambition, backed by Lazarenko, to force Donetsk companies to buy gas traded by the United Energy Systems of Ukraine (UESU) utility she headed at the time.

He portrayed the murder as a result of infighting between business clans based in the central city of Dnipropetrovsk, the home region of Tymoshenko and Lazarenko, and Donetsk, the base of Shcherban and Yanukovych.

Lazarenko, who started his career as a driver in a Soviet collective farm, headed the Ukrainian government from May 1996 to July 1997. He was convicted in the United States of money laundering in 2006 and given a nine-year jail term.

But Vlasenko said "every child in Ukraine knows that the 1996 Donetsk murders were a score-settling between Donetsk clans."

Donetsk was stained by a litany of murders between 1994- 1996.

Top businessman and boss of the Danko firm Alexander Momot was killed in May 1996 while the president of the Shakhtar Donetsk football club Akhat Bragin was blown up in October 1995 at the team's stadium.

The city is one of the hosts of the ongoing Euro 2012 championships and will host one of the tournament's semi-finals on Wednesday.

The authorities have waged a major PR campaign -- according to Ukrainian media spearheaded by global PR giant Burson- Marsteller -- to promote their claims of Tymoshenko's links to the murder.

Shcherban's son Ruslan, a Donetsk regional lawmaker, in April also publicly stated he could prove the interests of Tymoshenko and Lazarenko in the death of his father.

However several analysts have expressed suspicion over the resurfacing of the allegations against Tymoshenko at the very time when the European Union is saying her abuse of power conviction is politically motivated.

"This is a very old case. If there were really reasons to pursue her, then this should have been done long ago," said Viktor Chumak, director of the Institute of Public Policy.

"The way they are bringing out the arguments now resembles more a game with the facts than reality," he added.

According to analyst Mykhailo Pogrebinsky, the European Union already suspects the Ukrainian authorities of interfering in the judicial system and "no new accusation is going to change their opinion".
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