Russia rejects Western criticism of Khodorkovsky case

31st December 2010, Comments 0 comments

Russia on Friday rejected the West's 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 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 Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov as saying.

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

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 the prosecution sought.

The defence has called the decision "lawlessness" and on Friday filed 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 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.

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 Russia's most famous case since the Soviet era created barely a ripple 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.

Neither was the condemnation mentioned in any of the holiday letters that Putin sent out to world leaders Friday.

A government statement said Putin congratulated US President Barack Obama with the progress the two sides had made on nuclear disarmament and "expressed hope that 2011 will be a successful year in Russia-US relations."

© 2010 AFP

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