Russia's Khodorkovsky appeals new jail term

24th May 2011, Comments 0 comments

Russia's fallen oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky on Tuesday urged President Dmitry Medvedev to make good on his promises on the rule of law, speaking in court during an appeal of his latest conviction.

Russia's former richest man and now its most famous prisoner, Khodorkovsky made his plea as he appealed the verdict of his second fraud trial, which sparked global condemnation and is likely to keep him in jail until 2017.

"The president will have to make a choice on what he and Russia need: a state governed by the rule of law or the possibility of unlawful reprisals. You cannot have both," a calm and confident-looking Khodorkovsky said from inside a glass-walled enclosure in the courtoom.

He called on judges to annul the latest verdict, saying its absurdity was obvious.

"I don't need mercy and am not asking for a reduced sentence," said Khodorkovsky, sporting a black polo shirt and closely-cropped salt-and-pepper hair.

"You either annul it or join the criminals in robes," he said with his former business partner and fellow prisoner Platon Lebedev sitting by his side.

Supporters expressed scepticism that Khodorkovsky's calls to Medvedev would have any effect, however.

"Nothing has changed. The president has said many nice things that have not become reality," the toppled oligarch's mother Marina Khodorkovkskaya told AFP.

Lebedev's lawyer Konstantin Rivkin agreed. "We would like words to be translated into action, which we cannot see at the moment. Our clients are behind bars," he told AFP.

Khodorkovsky and Lebedev were both convicted last year in their second trial and are expected to stay in jail until 2017.

Khodorkovsky built up Yukos into Russia's biggest oil firm before it was broken up by the state. In December he was found guilty of money laundering and embezzlement on top of his first 2005 tax evasion conviction.

His supporters have long argued both sets of charges were trumped up by the state to punish Khodorkovsky for financing the opposition to Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who then served as president.

In a concession on Tuesday, prosecutor Valery Lakhtin backed a reduction in the amount of oil named as stolen in the verdict, but argued this would not justify cutting the sentences.

"All this is not a basis for softening the punishment of the prisoners," he said, before the judge retired to consider his verdict.

A court decision was expected later Tuesday.

Putin said ahead of December's ruling that "prison is the place for a thief" in comments that observers said had spelled doom for Khodorkovsky and crushed any hope of his early release.

Khodorkovsky's trial has been watched as a possible indicator of Russia's future direction under Putin and Medvedev, amid speculation that the powerful prime minister was planning a return to the Kremlin in 2012 polls.

Asked at a news conference last week what the danger Khodorkovsky would pose if he were set free, Medvedev told reporters curtly: "You asked a short question and the answer will be brief as well: absolutely none.'

Russia is heading into parliamentary polls in December followed by a presidential vote three months later and observers say the ruling duo have a vested interest in keeping the charismatic ex-businessman behind bars in the coming years.

© 2011 AFP

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