A Ukrainian judge has rejected a prosecutor’s request to detain former President Petro Poroshenko in a treason case.
Judge Oleksiy Sokolov said on Wednesday Poroshenko should instead appear before prosecutors and investigators when requested to do so.
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Poroshenko is being investigated for treason in a case that he says was cooked up by the allies of his successor, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.
Poroshenko, 56, who served as president from 2014 to 2019, was placed under investigation for high treason and left Ukraine in December.
He is being investigated in connection with the financing of Russian-backed separatist fighters through illegal coal sales in 2014-15. He faces up to 15 years in prison if found guilty, and his party accused Zelenskyy of a reckless attempt to silence opposition.
Zelenskyy’s administration says the prosecutors and judiciary are independent and accuses Poroshenko of putting himself above the law.
One of the country’s richest men, Poroshenko flew back to Kyiv on Monday after a month’s absence promising to help Ukraine fend off a possible Russian invasion.
His return comes with Ukraine facing its biggest crisis in years as Russia masses tens of thousands of soldiers on the border, raising fears of an offensive and prompting warnings from the West.
Dressed in a traditional embroidered shirt, Poroshenko appeared in court on Wednesday while thousands of his supporters demonstrated outside, chanting and waving flags and briefly scuffling with police before the hearing.
Judge Sokolov rejected the prosecution request to arrest Poroshenko and set bail at the equivalent of $35m.
Poroshenko and his supporters applauded the decision and started singing the national anthem in the court.
“This is not yet a victory, this is the first step in the right direction,” Poroshenko said.
However, the court also ordered Poroshenko to surrender his passports, de facto
banning him from leaving the country.
Poroshenko said he had invitations to at least three foreign visits, and would appeal.
“The seizure of my passport hinders my political activity. Being limited to staying in Kyiv hinders my internal political activity.”
He was elected president in 2014, the same year Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine and as fighting escalated between Kyiv’s troops and Moscow-backed separatists in the east of the country.
Authorities say they are investigating dozens of alleged crimes in which Poroshenko might be involved. A Kyiv court froze his assets at the start of January.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, meeting Zelenskyy in Kyiv, appealed to Ukrainian leaders to present a united front against Russia.
“I think one of Moscow’s longstanding goals has been to try to sow divisions, between and within countries, and quite simply we cannot and will not let them do that,” he said.
Poroshenko also called for unity, saying: “The behaviour of the aggressor requires a national consensus.”