The former Ukrainian prime minister, Yulia Tymoshenko, has been sentenced to seven years in prison after being found guilty of abusing her office in a case her supporters claim is politically motivated.
Judge Rodion Kireyev said Tymoshenko had exceeded her powers when she signed a 2009 deal with Moscow that left Ukraine paying a high price for Russian gas.
At the end of an hours-long reading of the verdict, he ordered her to repay the state gas company, Naftogaz, 1.5 billion hryvnia (£120m) in damages.
The trial, which began in May, has been criticised by the Ukrainian opposition and EU leaders.
Tymoshenko, a leader of Ukraine’s Orange revolution six years ago, had reverted to being the country’s chief opposition politician and rival to the president, Viktor Yanukovych, since leaving office last year. She has accused Yanukovych of orchestrating her arrest.
The former prime minister addressed reporters during a break in the reading of the verdict to accuse Yanukovych of building an “authoritarian regime”. The 50-year-old compared her trial to Stalin’s purges, when the Soviet dictator sought to eliminate his perceived enemies.
Before the judge began reading the verdict, Tymoshenko had told the court: “You know very well that the sentence is not being pronounced by Judge Kireyev but by President Yanukovych. Whatever the sentence pronounced, my struggle will continue.”
Tymoshenko’s supporters had gathered outside the courtroom in Kiev, where city officials deployed around 1,000 police officers.
Some Ukrainian analysts have speculated that the leadership in Kiev could attempt to save face by overturning any sentence. That would leave Tymoshenko out of prison but, under Ukrainian law, bar her from participating in the country’s political life.
The EU was quick to condemn the verdict as politically motivated and urged the Ukrainian authorities to ensure a transparent and fair appeals process for Tymoshenko.
A failure to do so would have “profound implications” for Ukraine-EU relations and could jeopardise the conclusion of a landmark association agreement, the EU foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, said in a statement.
Nearly a dozen of Tymoshenko’s associates have been arrested since Yanukovych came to power after a closely-contested vote last year. He has denied carrying out a witch-hunt.