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high-level dispute

Prime Minister Stephen Harper has written a letter to Ukraine's president warning that bilateral relations – now dominated by free-trade talks – could be damaged by the "political" prosecution of opposition politician Yulia Tymoshenko.

It's a hint that Canada's ongoing free-trade negotiations with Kiev could be jeopardized by the case of Ms. Tymoshenko. On Tuesday, she was sentenced to seven years in prison after what was widely seen as a politically biased trial motivated by Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich's grudge against a political foe.

Mr. Harper's leader-to-leader missive to Mr. Yanukovich raises Canadian objections to a high-level dispute – pushed at the top, with a threat of consequences.

"I am … deeply concerned by recent developments in your country, in particular by the apparent political motivation behind the trial of former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko," Mr. Harper wrote to Mr. Yanukovich.

He added: "I cannot overstate the potential negative impact of the current judicial proceedings against Yulia Tymoshenko both on Ukraine's future relations with Canada and others, and on Ukraine's long-term democratic development."

Canadian and Ukrainian negotiators completed a second round of free-trade talks in May. But in a speech to the Ukrainian-Canadian Congress Friday night, Mr. Harper said Canada's approach to relations depends on Ukraine's direction.

"Canada will support Ukraine whenever it moves towards freedom, democracy and justice," he said in a draft of the speech. "However, our foreign policy is rooted in principle, and in the defence of freedom."

Mr. Harper's warning adds to a chorus of condemnation from the Western world that has come with other threats of impact on Ukrainian trade. The European Union has warned that it is reconsidering a free-trade and association deal with Kiev, a key step towards EU integration.

Ms. Tymoshenko, a former co-leader of the Ukraine's pro-democracy Orange Revolution who served twice as the country's prime minister, narrowly lost last year's presidential election to Mr. Yanukovich.

On Tuesday, she was sentenced to seven years in jail for exceeding her powers by agreeing to a natural gas deal with Russia that was not approved by her cabinet. There was no accusation that she personally profited from the deal, and her prosecution has been widely seen abroad as an attempt by Mr. Yanukovich to settle an old grudge, using a malleable judiciary.

The case is a twist on both politicians' personas. Mr. Yanukovich has long been considered Moscow's man, and Ms. Tymoshenko pro-Europe. But Ms. Tymoshenko, who did strike up a good relationship with Vladimir Putin, was charged with exceeding her powers to cut a 2009 gas deal that favoured Russia.

Ms. Tymoshenko's sentencing on Tuesday prompted an international outcry, but on Thursday Ukrainian security service investigators said they have opened a new criminal case against her. That case dates from the 1990s, when Ms. Tymoshenko headed a private gas company, UES. She is accused of conspiring with former premier Pavlo Lazarenko, now in a U.S. prison for money-laundering, to have the Ukrainian government guarantee her company's debts to Moscow.

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