Tymoshenko's request to be freed from custody was denied as thousands called for her release outside court [Reuters]

A Ukrainian court has rejected a request by lawyers of Yulia Tymoshenko, the former prime minister, to free her from detention during her trial on a charge of abuse of office.

Tymoshenko, 50, the country's most powerful opposition leader, was held last Friday after the prosecution said she was disturbing the courtroom proceedings, a charge she denied.

The judge handed down his ruling on Monday, saying she was guilty of contempt of court for allegedly refusing to co-operate with the judge and denouncing him as a "puppet" of President Viktor Yanukovych, her political opponent.

She refused to rise when addressing the court, as required, and routinely insulted the judge. Her supporters have repeatedly disrupted hearings.

Tymoshenko's detention was upheld as thousands of her supporters gathered outside the courtroom on Kiev's main road, calling for her release from police custody.

On Friday, Tymoshenko's supporters in court, including legislators, squabbled with riot police and tried to prevent them from driving her away in a prison car, shouting: "Shame! Shame!"

Dozens of them then gathered outside the court building in the capital, Kiev, and tried to block the road, but riot police pushed them aside.

Case against Tymoshenko

Tymoshenko has been accused of illegally forcing the state energy company, Naftogaz, to sign a gas-supply contract with Russia in 2009.

She insists she is innocent, arguing that the contract ended weeks of natural-gas disruptions to Ukrainian and European consumers and that she was authorised to sign the deal as prime minister.

Experts in Ukraine and abroad believe the trial's real motive is to disqualify Tymoshenko from forthcoming parliamentary and presidential elections by convicting her as a felon.

Tymoshenko has a long and bitter history with Yanukovych.

She was the central figure in Ukraine's 2004 Orange Revolution mass protests that threw out Yanukovych's fraud-tainted victory in a presidential election and led to another vote that brought a pro-Western government to power.

Tymoshenko became prime minister, but Ukrainians grew frustrated by economic hardships, slow reforms and endless bickering in the Orange camp.

As a result, she lost to Yanukovych in the 2010 presidential election.

Source: Agencies