ROME (Reuters) - An Italian court freed a senior Ukrainian opposition politician detained last month after a request to send him back to Kiev to face charges of abuse of power, but he still faces a legal battle to avoid extradition.
Arsen Avakov, governor of the eastern Kharkiv region between 2005 and 2010 and an ally of former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, was arrested in the town of Frosinone near Rome on March 26 in response to a Ukrainian extradition request.
His Italian lawyer Corrado Oliviero told Reuters that Avakov had been released by the Rome Appeals Court after he challenged the detention order and he was now waiting for extradition hearings to begin.
“He’s a free man and he’s calmly waiting for his trial,” he said. “In fact, he’ll probably ask for political asylum in Italy.”
Court documents explaining the ruling said judges had upheld the defence argument that Avakov would be “subject to persecution as a political figure” in Ukraine and that he could be “subject to violation of his human rights and even forced labour”.
Oliviero said that given what the court had decided on Thursday, it would be “beyond the bounds of reality” for a court to rule that Avakov should be extradited.
Ukrainian general prosecutor spokeswoman Margarita Belkova said Avakov had been freed by the court but was being held under house arrest while the issue of his extradition to Ukraine was settled.
“The competent organs of the Italian republic at the moment are continuing the extradition request from the Ukrainian general prosecutor’s office about surrendering Avakov to face criminal proceedings,” she said.
She interpreted this as a move by the Italian court to meet Ukraine’s request.
“In whatever situation he is now - whether under house arrest, or without the right to leave the country or under arrest in prison - the extradition process will continue until there is a decision to hand him over to the Ukrainian side,” said Yuri Boichenko, head of the general prosecutor’s press service.
Avakov’s arrest followed a series of cases in Ukraine in which members of the previous government have been sentenced for corruption, prompting concerns from the European Union about political freedom within the former Soviet country.
Tymoshenko herself has been jailed on charges of abusing the powers of her office as prime minister over a 2009 gas deal with Russia, which the government of President Viktor Yanukovich has said forced Ukraine to pay an exorbitant price for its gas.
Additional reporting by Mario Sarzanini and Richard Balmforth in Kiev; Editing by Jon Hemming