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Euro 2012: Ukraine plays on as Yulia Tymoshenko lies in jail

As the co-hosts face England tonight, the woman who once seemed set for the presidency will still be locked up on charges many say are bogus. Shaun Walker reports from her hospital-prison in Kharkiv
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If Yulia Tymoshenko had won just a fraction more of the vote in a close-run election two years ago, she would probably have been watching Ukraine's Euro 2012 match with England tonight from the presidential box. Instead, she has spent the tournament locked up on the ninth floor of the Ukrainian Railways Diagnostic Hospital, a grim institution in the eastern city of Kharkiv.

Her arch-rival Viktor Yanukovych, whom she dislodged in the 2004 Orange Revolution but who defeated her to return as President in 2010, has been the one performing the ceremonial duties, while Ms Tymoshenko has been confined to her hospital bed.

Instead of the party of international dignitaries he was hoping for at the opening ceremony, Mr Yanukovych was surrounded by his own cabinet and Uefa's Michel Platini, with the majority of European leaders and ministers vowing to boycott the tournament. This is mainly down to the treatment of Ms Tymoshenko, who was jailed for seven years late last year on charges that most observers see as politically motivated.

Ms Tymoshenko, who with her trademark plait and fiery charisma is the most recognisable politician in Ukraine, was transferred to a well-guarded hospital room from her prison cell for treatment of a chronic spine problem last month. The crumbling Soviet-built hospital block is only a couple of miles from Kharkiv's Metalist Stadium, where the Netherlands have played all three of their matches.

But the hospital could not be further removed from Ukraine's Euro 2012 party. Patients laze around on benches in the courtyard outside, while inside, stern nurses pace the grimy corridors.

Having disregarded a request from Angela Merkel to allow Ms Tymoshenko to be treated in Germany, the Ukrainian authorities have compromised and allowed her treatment to be overseen by German doctors. But currently there are only Ukrainian doctors treating her.

Karl Max Einhaeupl, the head of Berlin's Charite Hospital, who examined Ms Tymoshenko earlier this month, criticised the care she was receiving and said it was "questionable whether she can make a full recovery under these conditions".

The Germans, whose national team played Holland in Kharkiv, have led the boycott of the Ukrainian section of the tournament. Chancellor Merkel has said she will not attend any games in Ukraine, and there were no German ministers at last Wednesday's game with Holland. "I hope that amid all the enthusiasm focused on the leather ball, the destiny of Yulia Tymoshenko and of all other Ukrainian opposition activists sitting in jail will not be forgotten," said Guido Westerwelle, the German Foreign Minister.

The British government has said that no ministers will attend the group stage games in protest at the treatment of Ms Tymoshenko, but in a bizarre half-measure it said it would only decide later whether to boycott the knockout stages should England make it out of the group.

Other politicians say the boycott is counterproductive. "There are reasons to boycott President Yanukovych, and politicians should keep a distance from him," said Ms Harms.

"Those who go should of course clearly show their criticism, and they should also ask for meetings with Tymoshenko and others. But it would be completely wrong to boycott Ukraine as a country and hide behind the boycott rather than make a stand."

She held up a banner criticising Mr Yanukovych during the game between Germany and Holland, which was swiftly taken away from her by police. Mr Yanukovych has slammed Ms Tymoshenko's call for a boycott and said that "God will be the judge" of those leaders who stay away. He has also upped the stakes this week, suggesting that Ms Tymoshenko was behind a horrendous contract killing in the 1990s.

Mr Yanukovych suggested his political rival may have been involved in the assassination of Ukrainian oligarch Yevhen Shcherban in Donetsk, the city where England played their opening game in Euro 2012. Mr Shcherban and his wife were killed by several men disguised as airport mechanics as they disembarked from his private plane in Donetsk. Ms Tymoshenko has said suggestions she was involved in the killing were "absurd", and accuses Mr Yanukovych of becoming increasingly dictatorial during the two years he has been in charge.

Outside the hospital, a small group of supporters stand vigil all day, every day. They are mainly garrulous middle-aged women who say they are impressed by Ms Tymoshenko's courage. "She is a clever and strong woman, and she's a real patriot," says Natalia Shumilina. "Yanukovych is the real criminal, and the people that work for him. He put Yulia away because he is scared of her."

Mr Yanukovych is carrying on as if nothing has happened. He was at Ukraine's first game in Kiev, when the national team beat Sweden 2-1, and was pictured wildly celebrating Ukraine's goals. Aides say he will also be in Donetsk to watch Ukraine take on England tonight. Ms Tymoshenko issued a statement yesterday calling on Ukrainians to come together and support the national team against Roy Hodgson's side.