Putin on Khodorkovsky: 'a thief must be in prison'
Prime Minister Vladimir Putin Thursday said of jailed oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky that a "thief must be in prison", sparking angry accusations of flagrant meddling in the judicial process.
Moving to dispel suggestions that Russia's ex-richest man might soon win his release, Putin compared the crimes of Khodorkovsky to those of the US financier Bernard Madoff, who was sentenced to 150 years for investment fraud.
And he once again linked Khodorkovsky to the crimes of his company's security service chief, who has been found guilty of the murder of three people including the mayor of a city where Yukos had a major oil field.
"I believe that a thief must be in prison," Putin said when asked to comment on Khodorkovsky his annual question and answer session.
"We must operate based on the fact that Mr Khodorkovsky's guilt has been proven in court," Putin added.
Khodorkovsky, already serving an eight-year sentence in a case that has become a rallying point for Russian liberals, is awaiting a verdict in his second trial on charges of embezzlement and money laundering.
Putin defended his government against criticism for being too severe with his old rival, saying that other countries issued much stiffer sentences for similar crimes.
"If we look at the practice of other countries, Mr. Madoff -- for a similar crime, and more or less the same amount of money -- received a 150-year sentence. I think things look a lot more liberal here," Putin said.
An attorney for Khodorkovsky said Putin's comments meant that the court will probably convict the Yukos founder when it start reading its verdict in the second hearing on December 27.
But he argued that Putin was violating the presumption of innocence clause, providing the perfect reason to contest any conviction in the European Court on Human Rights.
"Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin is saying that we should operate based on the fact that Khodorkovsky's guilt has been proven in court," said lead defence attorney Vadim Klyuvgant.
"In the meantime, the judge is in the deliberation room -- and this, of course, removes any question" that the defence might have had about the case, Klyuvgant said in a statement.
"This clearly and distinctly states who was pressuring the court and for what reason."
Some of Putin's strongest comment concerned Khodorkovsky's alleged link to Alexei Pichugin, the security official handed a life sentence for the murder of three people including the mayor of the western Siberian town of Nefteyugansk.
"And in addition, you know this but I would like to repeat it, I am not talking about him personally, but I would remind you that the head of the Yukos security service is sitting (in jail) for murder. You see, he didn't like the mayor of Nefteyugansk," Putin said.
"There was a woman in Moscow who did give them a small property they wanted to take -- they killed her. The killer that was hired -- they killed him.
"What, did the head of the security service commit all these crimes on his own -- on his own initiative?"
It was the second time Putin mentioned the case in public despite it not being mentioned on the charge sheet.
© 2010 AFP