KIEV (Reuters) - Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich poured scorn on his jailed rival, former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, on Wednesday, saying the question of her imprisonment should not hinder Kiev's integration with the European Union.
Days before an EU summit, where he had been expected to sign a landmark free trade pact before his government's about-face last week, Yanukovich questioned Brussels characterization of her jailing as politically motivated.
"The issue of Yulia Tymoshenko should not be a hindrance to Ukraine's European integration," said a statement on the presidential administration website.
"What is the European Union - a court?" Yanukovich was quoted as asking in the statement.
Yanukovich, whose comments often play Russia and the European Union off against each other while keeping an eye on his domestic audience, says he will attend a summit on Friday in Lithuania in what could be a tense exchange with EU leaders.
Tymoshenko, whose 53rd birthday is on Wednesday and who is on hunger strike over Kiev's decision to renew economic ties with Russia, was an architect of the 2004 Orange Revolution that thwarted Yanukovich's first attempt at the presidency.
Her jailing on abuse of power charges sparked criticism at home and abroad. Brussels was trying to secure her release as a condition to Ukraine's planned signing of the agreement of association papers at Friday's summit.
(amends jail to jailed in headline)
(Reporting by Pavel Polityuk, Writing by Thomas Grove, editing by Elizabeth Piper)