Court raps Russia on tycoon, rejects politics claims

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A European court on Tuesday censured Russia over the imprisonment of Mikhail Khodorkovsky but refused to back claims the arrest was politically motivated, as its former richest man requested parole.

The supporters of Khodorkovsky, who turned Yukos into Russia's biggest oil firm before it was seized and broken up by the state, have long argued he was imprisoned as punishment for daring to challenge strongman Vladimir Putin.

The European Court of Human Rights ordered Russia to pay 10,000 euros ($14,380) in damages to the tycoon and 14,543 euros ($21,000) in costs after finding violations in the conditions of his arrest and subsequent detention.

However, the Strasbourg-based court refused to back his central argument that the case is "politically motivated", it said in a statement.

The decision came just after a Russian court announced it had received a request from Khodorkovsky for parole and amid tentative signs of a shift in the hardline attitude towards the case by the authorities.

"I ask you to examine the issue of my parole," Khodorkovsky said in a request to a Moscow court, posted on his website late on Monday.

"The articles under which I have been convicted provide for this possibility once half the sentence has been completed," he added.

Khodorkovsky's request arrived at the Preobrazhensky district court in Moscow earlier Tuesday, a court spokeswoman told AFP.

His lawyer Vadim Klyuvgant told AFP that there were "no legal obstacles" for the parole and said that the court was obliged to examine the request within weeks.

Khodorkovsky has been in detention since 2003 when he was arrested on his jet on the runway of a Siberian airport.

The former magnate and his co-accused Platon Lebedev are serving an eight- year sentence issued in 2005 for tax evasion and are set to stay in jail until 2016 after receiving another 13-year sentence for fraud.

Ruling on a complaint first made by Khodorkovsky in February 2004, the court said he had been kept in "inhuman and degrading" conditions between August and October 2005.

"In particular, he had had less than 4 square metres of personal space in his cell, and the sanitary conditions had been appalling," it said, adding his pre-trial detention was also extended twice without justification in 2004.

But even though Western states, led by the United States, have complained of a "selective prosecution" of Khodorkovsky, the court declined to back his complaint that his case was politically motivated.

While there might be "some suspicion as to... the real intent" of the Russian authorities, "incontestable proof" that the case was politically motivated was not presented, it said.

"The court, persuaded that the charges against Mr Khodorkovsky had amounted to a 'reasonable suspicion'... held that there had been no violation," it said.

The Russian authorities have always brushed off widespread international criticism that the case is politically motivated, with Prime Minister Putin bluntly declaring last year that a "thief must be in prison".

But intrigue has flared again in the last few days after a Russian television channel that is usually slavishly loyal to the Kremlin took the highly unusual step of broadcasting a report about Khodorkovsky, virtually a taboo subject.

The Central Television programme on the NTV channel, shown on prime time Sunday evening, broadcast a segment that included comments by Khodorkovsky's main lawyer and even written answers from the prisoner himself.

"This report could not have appeared without approval from above," the Vedomosti daily wrote Tuesday, describing it as "completely unexpected".

Some analysts have detected a split between Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev over the issue. Medvedev, a lawyer by training, said this month that the release of Khodorkovsky would not pose a threat to society.

A former aide to the court where the verdict was given at the end of 2010 sparked a furore earlier this year when she claimed that the judge had been ordered to give the verdict from on high.

© 2011 AFP

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