Putin issues chilling message to Khodorkovsky

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Prime Minister Vladimir Putin on Thursday issued a chilling message to jailed tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky as he held a presidential-style question and answer session with Russian citizens.

"I believe that a thief must be in prison," Putin said when asked to comment on the case of Russia's former richest man in his annual question and answer session.

Khodorkovsky, already serving an eight-year sentence in a case that has become a rallying point for Russian liberals, is awaiting the verdict in his second trial on charges of embezzlement.

The verdict was on Wednesday postponed until December 27 and Putin's harsh comments will spark speculation he has little chance of being let off.

"We must operate based on the fact that Mr Khodorkovsky's guilt has been proven in court," Putin added.

Putin's stamina-busting question session has become a feature of the winter season over the last years, with the Russian strongman holding court on issues ranging from bread-and-butter issues to foreign policy.

Analysts say the carefully stage-managed event, which has lasted up to four hours in previous years, is designed to boost Putin's image and show he remains in control despite various calamities that befall Russia regularly.

The gigantic set did little to dispel impressions of a presidential-style set piece, with Putin sitting with one TV anchor at a desk.

It was watched by a studio audience and row after row of young workers faithfully typing up questions phoned in all over Russia.

Putin entered in a business-like fashion carrying a thin file of papers and dressed in a dark suit.

He also called on law enforcement officials to clamp down on all forms of extremism as he addressed ordinary Russians following race-tinged violence that shook the country.

On December 11, some 5,000 ultra-nationalists and football hooligans clashed with the police outside the Kremlin walls following the deadly shooting of a football fan by a Muslim suspect.

"There is a need to suppress all the manifestations of extremism on all sides," Putin said. "There should be an order," he said. "We are children of one country."

President Dmitry Medvedev, widely seen as a junior partner in the country's ruling duo, warned such violence threatened the stability of the entire state before police on Wednesday detained hundreds of youths in Moscow and other cities.

Putin however himself admitted that rampant crime across Russia exposed inefficiency of the regional and local government.

Answering a question about a local criminal group that had for years terrorised villagers in the southern Krasnodar region and killed 12 people including four children last month, he said "the situation was awful."

"This is the failure of the entire law enforcement system," Putin said. "That's a very serious signal."

The call-in show will also be closely watched over whether Putin drops any hints over his future plans.

Putin ceded the Kremlin to Medvedev in 2008, becoming a powerful prime minister and speculation is buzzing that he may be plotting a return as head of state in 2012 elections.

The sheer magnitude of the event and its blanket media coverage is usually seen as a reaffirmation of Putin's status as the true Russian number one, even after handing the presidency to Medvedev.

Officials are expecting that over one million questions will have been suggested by phone, Internet and SMS by the time the show goes on air. Last year, Putin answered around 80 questions.

© 2010 AFP

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