CORRECTED: Russia's Khodorkovsky to stay in jail six more years

30th December 2010, Comments 0 comments

A Russian court Thursday ordered ex-oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky to stay in jail until 2017, sentencing him to 14 years in a trial his defence said was influenced by strongman Vladimir Putin.

Judge Viktor Danilkin issued the new sentence for Khodorkovsky and his co-accused Platon Lebedev after finding them guilty of money laundering and embezzlement in a trial that started in March 2009.

With the sentence back-dated to his initial arrest in 2003, Khodorkovsky will stay in prison until 2017, removing a key opponent of president turned Prime Minister Vladimir Putin from the political scene for years to come.

"The correction of Khodorkovsky and Lebedev is possible only by way of their isolation from society," the judge said as he passed sentence.

The reading of the verdict in the packed courtroom was the culmination of the most controversial trial in Russia's post-Soviet history which critics said was staged simply to punish Khodorkovsky for daring to oppose Putin.

"May you and your offspring be damned!" Khodorkovsky's mother shouted as the verdict was read out. But the two defendants reacted calmly to the decision, an AFP correspondent in court said.

"This is not a sentence, this is a case of lawlessness," defence lawyer Yury Shmidt told reporters after the sentence. "There was pressure from the executive branch which is now headed by Putin."

The ruling met prosecutors' demand for a 14-year sentence for the pair.

"It's a cruel, shameful sentence which shows the absence of independent courts in Russia," said Lyudmila Alexeyeva, one of Russia's top rights activists.

In a statement read by his defence team outside the court, Khodorkovsky said his example showed "you cannot hope for legal protection in Russia from bureaucrats."

But the fallen tycoon, once Russia's richest man, added that he and Lebedev "have not become dejected and we wish this for all our friends."

Judge Danilkin convicted the pair on Monday in their second trial on money laundering and embezzlement charges, a verdict condemned by the United States and other European countries as selective prosecution.

Germany lashed out at the sentence and trial. "The impression remains that political motives played a role in the trial," German Chancellor Angela Merkel said.

"This contradicts the intentions frequently declared by Russia to pursue the path toward a state based entirely on the rule of law."

France urged Russia Thursday to "fully take into account the concerns" over the trial.

The Polish head of the European Parliament, Jerzy Buzek, said it had been an "emblematic symbol" of Russia's failure to modernise.

"I am very disappointed," the former Polish premier said. "The trials of Mikhail Khodorkovsky were the litmus test of how the rule of law and human rights are treated in today's Russia.

Khodorkovsky, 47, turned his company Yukos into Russia's largest and some said best managed oil company after acquiring assets in the chaotic post-Soviet privatisations of the 1990s.

But he has been in prison since being snatched off his private jet by Russian security agents in October 2003 and has always alleged he was being punished for daring to finance the opposition to then president Putin.

In 2005 he was convicted on tax evasion and other charges and sentenced to eight years in jail.

In the new trial he was charged with embezzling 218 million tonnes of oil from his Yukos oil giant between 1998 and 2003 and laundering 487 billion rubles (16 billion dollars) and 7.5 billion dollars received from the oil.

The defence called the charges utterly absurd since the amount of oil said to have been embezzled would be equivalent to the entire production of Yukos in that period.

"If they stole billions then I ask, where are those billions?" Khodorkovsky's father Boris told reporters at the trial. "Does he have anything of his own now, does he have personal property?"

The verdict had been largely expected even before Putin used a national television broadcast to affirm that a "thief must be in jail", comments many interpreted as a direct order for the court to convict Khodorkovsky again.

© 2010 AFP

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