West lashes Russia for tough Khodorkovsky sentence
Russia was lashed Friday by Western criticism of a court decision to keep Kremlin critic and ex-tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky in jail until 2017 in a case watched as a barometer of the country's democratic progress.
The US State Department and the European Union led a chorus of international condemnation of the sentence delivered Thursday in the second trial of the Yukos oil company founder and his co-defendant Platon Lebedev.
A Moscow judge found the pair -- already in prison since 2003 on tax evasion charges -- guilty of money laundering and embezzlement and extended their jail stay for the six years sought by the prosecution.
The case has been watched by Western governments and rights groups as a test of the country's commitment to the court independence and modernisation championed by President Dmitry Medvedev.
But disappointment echoed across international capitals following a decision that some officials said confirmed their worst fears about Russia.
Washington had been seeking to "reset" a relationship with Moscow that suffered several dark patches during the presidency of Medvedev's strongman predecessor Vladimir Putin.
But the State Department issued an unusually frank assessment of a trial which saw now-premier Putin declare on national television during the process that a "thief must be in prison".
"Simply put, the Russian government cannot nurture a modern economy without also developing an independent judiciary that serves as an instrument for furthering economic growth," said State Department spokesman Mark Toner.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel -- one of Europe's most regular visitors to Russia -- said she was "disappointed by the verdict against Mikhail Khodorkovsky and his tough sentence."
And Germany's Justice Minister Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger said the sentence "confirmed my worst fears" about Russia.
The European Union foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton said that "allegations" of irregularities in the court case "are a matter of serious concern and disappointment to us."
But Russia's most famous case since the Soviet era received far less attention in Moscow itself.
The government's official Rossiyskaya Gazeta daily mentioned the outcome in a brief article it placed at the bottom of page three while the only other paper to publish on New Year's Eve -- the Tvoi Den tabloid -- ran a few paragraphs on page four.
The state daily simply listed the charges against Khodorkovsky and inserted the headline: "Sentence Issued".
The brief mention ran a few inches bellow a large photograph of Khodorkovsky's arch-nemesis Putin smiling and toasting the New Year with a group of Russian reporters.
Putin's spokesman also refused to comment on the case Thursday evening as the government wrapped up its work ahead of a winter break festival that runs across the nation through January 10.
Khodorkovsky's supporters have accused the court of purposefully timing the trial so that it would end just as the country's was preparing to celebrates the country's most cherished holiday.
Russia goes on virtual shutdown for the first half of January as offices and stores close and news broadcasts are replaced with non-stop airings of beloved Soviet-era movies.
The sentencing was briefly reported on some of the late Thursday news broadcasts but had entirely vanished from state-controlled television by Friday morning.
Some Russian websites noted that state television appeared more concerned Thursday evening about the death in Saint Petersburg of Bobby Farrell, singer for the 1970s pop group Bonnie M.
© 2010 AFP