BERLIN - Germany's interior minister said Friday many European officials might boycott the Euro 2012 soccer matches taking place in Ukraine because of the country's handling of its jailed former prime minister, Yulia Tymoshenko.
Minister Hans-Peter Friedrich, who is also in charge of sports in Germany, told The Associated Press he cannot imagine being jubilant in a stadium in Ukraine while knowing that a few kilometres (miles) away Tymoshenko "is not being treated according to the rules of a civilized state."
Friedrich said he thinks it is possible that "many politicians who had planned to travel to Ukraine to watch the matches won't do so" unless Tymoshenko's situation improves before the football championship in June.
Tymoshenko, 51, Ukraine's top opposition leader, is serving a seven-year prison term on charges of abuse of office in a case harshly criticized by the West as politically motivated.
Tymoshenko denies the charges, saying they are part of a campaign by Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, her longtime foe, to bar her from politics.
Friedrich applauded the decision of Germany's President Joachim Gauck, who cancelled a trip to Ukraine, and a similar move by the EU's Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding who said she won't attend the Euro 2012 opening match in Ukraine because of the human rights situation there.
"That was a first escalating step," Friedrich said. "Further escalating steps are possible." Tymoshenko launched a hunger strike a week ago to protest alleged abuses by prison officials. She claims that guards punched her in the stomach and twisted her arms and legs while transporting her to a local hospital against her will to be treated for her spinal condition.
Friedrich stressed that he is not calling for European athletes to boycott the football championship, but added government officials attending matches in Ukraine "sends a political statement."
Friedrich said he has not made a final decision on whether he will attend any of the matches in Ukraine, but made it clear that there must be a positive change in handling Tymoshenko's case first.
"I'm still hoping ... the government will change course and recognize that these European championships are also a great opportunity to positively present its country," he said. "If it gets it wrong, this will cause damage to Ukraine's reputation that will last for a long time."
Follow Juergen Baetz on Twitter at www.twitter.com/jbaetz