MOSCOW -- Ukraine opposition leader Yuri Lutsenko was seriously injured when protesters clashed with riot police in downtown Kiev early Saturday, his spokeswoman said.

Shortly after midnight, Lutsenko tried to intervene in a confrontation between several hundred riot police and about a thousand protesters in downtown Kiev when police suddenly used tear gas and clubs against the crowd, Larisa Sargan, Lutsenko's press secretary, told the Los Angeles Times.

“Yuri was hit several times over the head with a club before he fell,” Sargan said in a phone interview. “His eyeglasses were broken, his head was badly bleeding when he was taken to a hospital. He passed out at least three times along the way.”

The Kiev protests turned violent in November and early December after President Victor Yanukovich refrained from signing a free trade and association agreement with the European Union, but since then they have been mostly peaceful, while sometimes drawing hundreds of thousands.

But on Friday a district court in Kiev sentenced three opposition activists to six years in prison in a case that started in 2011. The three activists from the town of Vasilkovo were found guilty of possessing explosives and planning to blow up a monument to Bolshevik leader Vladimir Lenin in the nearby town of Borispol.

The opposition considers the verdicts politically motivated, arguing that the convicted activists were set up and that the alleged explosives were planted on them, Sargan said.

Friday night after the verdict, at least 200 protesters blocked the courthouse exit in an attempt to prevent police from taking the three activists to prison. Police, however, broke through the crowd and took the prisoners away in two vehicles. Protesters along the route then blocked the vehicles, surrounding them with private cars and puncturing the tires.

Several more police buses arrived, carrying at least 400 riot police with clubs and shields. Lutsenko, a former Interior minister, then arrived on the scene.

At least seven protesters were injured in the clash, the UNIAN news organization reported. It said two opposition lawmakers were among those beaten by police. No arrests were reported.

Police accused protesters of hooliganism. During Friday and Saturday clashes, about 20 riot policemen were injured, one with a broken leg, as protesters threw bottles and stones, said a statement posted Saturday on the Interior Ministry website.

“An unidentified liquid substance” was thrown into the face of the judge during the verdict reading Friday, the statement said.

Lutsenko is being treated in a Kiev clinic's intensive therapy ward. “The doctors who have just stitched his over-1-inch head wound suspect a serious brain concussion,” Sargan said.

Kiev has become a hub of protests since November, when Yanukovich declined to sign the integration agreement with the European Union, choosing a closer reintegration with Russia instead. At the end of December, Russian President Vladimir Putin granted a $15-billion loan to Ukraine and presided with Yanukovich over a deal cutting the price of Russian natural gas exported to Ukraine by more than one-third, a move that somewhat toned down the protests but failed to stop them.

Protesters have been occupying Kiev's central Independence Square, turning it into a formidable fortress protected by hundreds of volunteers, mostly military and police veterans, and keeping up a 24-hour presence of several thousand protesters living in tents erected in the square and in two adjoining administrative buildings captured by protesters early in December.

The opposition demands the resignation of the government, early presidential and parliamentary elections and the release of political prisoners including former Premier Yulia Tymoshenko.

After the clashes Saturday morning and the beating of Lutsenko and other activists, the opposition called for a major rally Sunday afternoon in Independence Square.

Despite a lull in protests over the holidays, the political crisis in Ukraine is far from over, political expert Volodimir Fesenko said.

“The arrogantly cruel actions of the authorities have certainly added fuel to the political crisis whose potential is far from being exhausted yet,” Fesenko, head of Kiev-based Penta Center for Applied Political Research, said in a phone interview. “Whatever their motives, the government is clearly provoking a new turn of confrontation.”

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sergei.loiko@latimes.com