Khodorkovsky appeals Russian jail term extension

31st December 2010, Comments 0 comments

The defence of ex-tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky on Friday appealed a court decision to extend the Kremlin critic's jail stay until 2017 in a case watched by the West as a barometer of Russia's democratic progress.

The challenge came as Russia stared down a barrage of international criticism of a politically-tinged trial in which the Yukos oil company founder and his co-defendant Platon Lebedev received the toughest sentence they could.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov accused the West of interfering in the country's most famous trial since the Soviet era.

"The opinions expressed there (in the West) should not and absolutely do not affect the decisions taken by the judicial authorities of the Russian Federation," news agencies quoted Russia's top diplomat as saying.

"They are independent of both the Russian and the foreign authorities," Lavrov stressed.

A Moscow judge found Khodorkovsky and his business partner Lebedev -- already in prison since 2003 on tax evasion charges -- guilty of money laundering and embezzlement and extended their stay in jail by six years.

The defence called the decision "lawlessness" and on Friday lodged an initial appeal.

"This is a preliminary appeal because we still do not have the official text of the sentence or the court protocol," lawyer Karina Moskalenko told AFP by telephone.

The case has been watched by Western governments 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 ruling 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.

British Foreign Secretary William Hague meanwhile called the ruling a "retrograde step for Russia" while the European Union's foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton expressed "serious concern and disappointment."

But the conclusion of a case that has gone a long way to defining the reigns of two Russian presidents created barely a ripple in Moscow itself.

The government's 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 under 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 himself made no mention of diplomatic tension created by the trial as he -- and not Medvedev -- sent out letters congratulating world leaders with the New Year.

Russia's de facto number one congratulated US President Barack Obama with recent progress on nuclear disarmament and "expressed hope that 2011 will be a successful year in Russia-US relations."

© 2010 AFP

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