Russia tells West 'to mind own business' over tycoon

29th December 2010, Comments 0 comments

Russia Tuesday brusquely told the West to keep out of its domestic affairs after "unacceptable" criticism by the United States and Europe of the new guilty verdict for jailed tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky.

Khodorkovsky is facing the prospect of an additional lengthy jail term after being found guilty in his second trial Monday in a verdict that provoked an angry reaction in the West.

The White House said it was "deeply concerned" about the "selective application of justice". France called for the rule of law in Russia, while Germany said the verdict was a step backward.

And Canada on Tuesday added its voice to the chorus: "Political considerations should have no role in the judicial process," said a statement from Foreign Minister Lawrence Cannon.

But using language unusually blunt for a diplomatic statement, the Russian foreign ministry slammed "unacceptable" Western pressure in a process that has long been a bone of contention between Moscow and its ex-Cold War foes.

"We expect everyone to mind his own business, both at home and in the international arena," it said. "Attempts to exert pressure on the court are unacceptable," the foreign ministry said.

The reading of the full verdict in the Khodorkovsky case is expected to be completed over the course of the coming days, with uncertainty surrounding the precise date of the announcement of the sentence.

Already on Monday, judge Viktor Danilkin said Khodorkovsky and co-accused Platon Lebedev had been convicted of embezzlement and money laundering, dashing the hopes of Russian liberals the trial would show a new approach from Russian courts.

On Tuesday, Danilkin continued reading the verdict in a low, monotonous voice, while Khodorkovsky, wearing a black turtleneck, leafed through his papers and many in the courtroom could hardly contain their yawns.

Defence lawyer Vladimir Krasnov said the court was aiming to announce the sentence before year's end.

Some even say the judge may deliver the complete verdict late Friday when the entire country will be poised to usher in the New Year to the sound of the Kremlin chimes and popping champagne corks.

Court officials say the timing depends on how fast the judge can manage to read through the several-hundred page verdict.

"This depends on the judge's physical capacity," a court representative told AFP. He has to read the full judgement before pronouncing his sentence.

Khodorkovsky and Lebedev thanked their supporters for turning up Tuesday, saying their common efforts would not be wasted.

"Power without law is a stool without a leg. It looks silly and its prospects are predictable," they said in a statement released by Khodorkovsky's official website.

The pursuit of Khodorkovsky has been the most controversial legal action of the post-Soviet era and his trial is seen as a possible sign of Russia's political future.

Once the country's richest man, now its most prominent prisoner, Khodorkovsky, 47, is already serving an eight-year sentence for fraud.

He is now accused of stealing 218 million tonnes of oil worth more than 26 billion dollars from his own Yukos company between 1998 and 2003.

Khodorkovsky had been scheduled for release in 2011 but the new charges of money laundering and embezzlement could see him stay in jail until 2017 if the judge agrees to the prosecutors' request.

Khodorkovsky's supporters see him as a martyr punished for daring to challenge strongman Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, but for Russian officials he is just a corrupt tycoon who broke the law.

Putin has not ruled out returning to the Kremlin in 2012 to take over from President Dmitry Medvedev and observers say he would be keen to keep the charismatic Khodorkovsky behind bars in the coming years.

In a live television call-in show earlier this month, Putin said a "thief must be in prison" in comments rights campaigners decried as pressure on the court.

But prominent journalist Mikhail Fishman argued: "It was not pressure on the court -- it was the court itself.

"The court in its archaic form: the ruler punishes, pardons and grants privileges to his subjects on the main city square in accordance with his whims."

If the first Yukos trial was a settling of scores, Fishman wrote, the second trial demonstrates a "medieval disregard for common sense."

© 2010 AFP

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