Russia cuts Khodorkovsky sentence by one year

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A Moscow court on Tuesday upheld ex-tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky's conviction and cut the Kremlin critic's jail term by one year until 2016, prompting a defence vow to appeal the case in Europe.

The decision to keep Russia's most famous prisoner in jail for five more years is likely to anger rights groups, who view Khodorkovsky as a political victim of former president and current Prime Minister Vladmir Putin.

An appeals judge ruled that Khodorkovsky and his fellow prisoner and former business associate Platon Lebedev will have to serve "13 years each in a general security prison," an AFP correspondent reported from court.

Khodorkovsky's detention began when he was snatched off his private jet in 2003 in the heat of a power struggle with the Kremlin, during which he tried to influence Russia's energy policies and financed various opposition parties.

He had been scheduled for release this year before a Moscow court found him guilty on a second set of fraud charges in December.

The defence vowed to file an appeal with the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.

Khodorkovsky's case has become emblematic of the West's sceptical view of Russia's commitment to the rule of law and use of selective justice to prosecute those who fall foul of the state.

And the former Yukos oil company boss made an impassioned appeal to President Dmitry Medvedev before the verdict, asking him to prove his commitment to the rule of law.

"The president will have to make a choice on what he and Russia need: a state governed by the rule of law or the possibility of unlawful reprisals. You cannot have both," a calm and confident-looking Khodorkovsky said from inside a glass-walled enclosure in the courtroom.

Khodorkovsky said the second conviction -- which a secretary to the judge later said had been dictated to the court from higher authorities -- was obvious.

"I don't need mercy and am not asking for a reduced sentence," a defiant said Khodorkovsky told the court.

"You either annul it or join the criminals in robes," he said while Lebedev sat at his side.

But Khodorkovsky's mother expressed deep scepticism before the final verdict was read out, saying she remained distrustful that Medvedev could or would change anything despite some of his more liberal pronouncements.

"Nothing has changed. The president has said many nice things that have not become reality," the toppled oligarch's mother Marina Khodorkovkskaya told AFP.

Once Russia's richest man, Khodorkovsky built up Yukos into the country's biggest oil company before it was broken up by the state and then swallowed up Rosneft, a government controlled firm which if now the country's largest.

Putin said ahead of December's ruling that "prison is the place for a thief" in comments that observers said had spelled doom for Khodorkovsky and crushed any hope of his early release.

Khodorkovsky's trial has been watched as a possible indicator of Russia's future direction under Putin and Medvedev, amid speculation that the powerful prime minister was planning a return to the Kremlin in 2012 polls.

Asked at a news conference last week what the danger Khodorkovsky would pose if he were set free, Medvedev told reporters curtly: "You asked a short question and the answer will be brief as well: absolutely none.'

Russia is heading into parliamentary polls in December followed by a presidential vote three months later and observers say the ruling duo have a vested interest in keeping the charismatic ex-businessman behind bars in the coming years.

© 2011 AFP

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