The United States and its European allies are strongly protesting the sentencing of former Ukrainian prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko to seven years in prison following her conviction for abuse of power. I've seen little attempt on the part of these foreign protesters to prove that Tymoshenko was innocent, though the New York Times notes in passing the opinion of an international human rights group that suggests that her actual misdeeds were probably not worthy of prosecution. The legal aspects of the case seem essentially irrelevant to western opinion. Western opinion leaders apparently take it for granted that Tymoshenko, currently the leader of an opposition party, was prosecuted by a hostile government for purely partisan reasons. She was part of the "Orange Revolution" of 2004, which overturned an allegedly rigged election and was cheered by the west because the alleged rigger, Viktor Yanukovych, favored closer relations between Ukraine and Russia, while Tymoshenko and her senior ally (and later rival) Viktor Yurchenko, favored closer ties to the west. Yanukovitch has since won a more legitimate vote (despite allegations by Tymoshenko of more vote-rigging) and is the current president. It is still assumed in the west that Yanukovitch has authoritarian tendencies that explain his sympathies with Russia -- or vice versa -- though the Russians themselves are protesting the verdict against Tymoshenko, since the controversial deal she negotiated was favorable to them. In any event, western perceptions of Yanukovitch, more than any objective appraisal of the case against Tymoshenko, color opinions of the Ukrainian legal drama.
Americans in particular, it seems, reflexively extend the principle of partisan immunity that prevails here to other countries. A suspicion prevails, at least among the political classes, that objectivity is impossible when politicians are accused of lawbreaking in a party-state, i.e. one in which government and elections are organized along party lines. If the state prosecutes an opposition politician, the partisan-immunity principle assumes partisan motives. It assumes that the partisan state apparatus is practicing the "criminalization of politics," the persecution of opponents by way of prosecution for offenses that would not otherwise rise to the level of crimes. A defendant like Tymoshenko is presumed to be prosecuted only because she opposes the ruling party. At bottom, partisan immunity is based on bad faith, the assumption that certain people or groups are incapable of objectivity or genuine respect for the rule of law, and act only on self-interest. In a two-party political system with a roughly equal balance of power, partisan immunity amounts to virtual blanket immunity for politicians who remain within the good graces of their parties. It places a higher priority on the survival of parties than on the rule of law, on the presumption that the law can always be abused by parties.
I don't know enough about the Tymoshenko case to have an opinion on her guilt or innocence or the propriety of her sentence. But something seems wrong when so many governments continue to presume her innocence in spite of the verdict of her own country's judicial system. It would be naive to assume that governments cannot or will not manipulate courts to eliminate dissidents. But it's the opposite extreme from naivete -- cynicism or something worse -- to assume that governments do it all the time, or that certain governments always do it. A middle ground must be found that affirms the accountability of politicians to their nations and people, if not to a party. If it becomes impossible to envision accountability without assuming partisan bias, it becomes imperative for people around the world to question the partisan basis of politics everywhere. Otherwise, so long as we equate partisanship with political freedom, we free politicians from the accountability on which freedom for the rest of us depends.