Russia finds Khodorkovsky guilty in second trial

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A Moscow court on Monday found jailed tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky guilty in his second corruption trial, in a judgement seen as a watershed in Russia's post-Soviet history that upset rights campaigners.

The court found Khodorkovsky and his co-accused Platon Lebedev guilty of embezzlement and money laundering charges, the ITAR-TASS and Interfax news agencies reported.

They had been charged with embezzling 218 million tonnes of oil from Khodorkovsky's Yukos oil giant between 1998 and 2003 -- a charge the defence team says is absurd.

They were also charged with laundering 487 billion rubles (16 billion dollars) and 7.5 billion dollars received from the embezzled oil. The defence will appeal the verdict, his lead lawyer Vadim Klyuvgant told news agencies.

Amid chaotic scenes, only a handful of reporters were allowed into the courtroom for the verdict and judge Viktor Danilkin then requested even those journalists to leave as the rest of the verdict was read out.

"The court has established that M. Khodorkovsky and P. Lebedev committed embezzlement acting in collusion with a group of people and using their professional positions," said judge Viktor Danilkin in the judgement.

The judge was still reading the details of the verdict at midday and it was not clear when the sentence would be delivered.

The verdict was watched as a possible indicator of Russia's future direction under Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev, amid speculation that Putin is planning a return to the Kremlin in 2012 polls.

Once the country's richest man, now its most prominent prisoner, Khodorkovsky, 47, is already serving an eight-year sentence for fraud on charges his supporters insist were trumped up by the authorities.

But with his release scheduled for next year, Khodorkovsky was put on trial last year on charges of money laundering and embezzlement that could see the head of the now-defunct Yukos oil giant stay in jail until 2017.

"I expected this judgement. But all the same I am upset," Lyudmila Alexeyeva, one of Russia's best known rights defenders told the Interfax news agency.

"The judge would have had to have been a hero to have given an acquittal verdict."

The pursuit of Khodorkovsky has been the most controversial legal action of the post-Soviet era.

Khodorkovsky's supporters see him as a martyr punished for daring to challenge Putin by financing opposition parties but Russian officials view him as a corrupt tycoon who profited by breaking the law.

The hundreds of supporters gathered outside the court shouted "Russia without Putin" and "Down with the police state". Police arrested around 20 people, Interfax said.

But an advisor to Medvedev's flagship modernisation project Monday had made an impassioned plea for an acquittal, saying it was an essential message for foreign investment and to show change is possible.

"Such a verdict would satisfy business, the West in the widest sense of the word and potential investors in Russia," said Igor Yurgens, head of The Institute of Contemporary Development think tank set up by Medvedev when he came to power in 2008.

Moscow's Khamovnichesky court had been due to start reading the verdict on December 15, but unexpectedly postponed the announcement without giving an explanation.

The next day Putin compared Khodorkovsky to US fraudster Bernard Madoff, jailed for 150 years, and observed that a "thief must be in prison" in comments decried by the fallen magnate's legal team as direct meddling.

Aides later insisted that Putin was only referring to the first trial.

Khodorkovsky launched his own lacerating attack against Putin on Friday, saying he pitied a man who could only feel love for dogs.

"A love for dogs is the only sincere kind feeling that penetrates the armour of ice worn by the national symbol of the start of the millennium," Khodorkovsky wrote in an article for the Nezavisimaya Gazeta.

Like many other billionaires, Khodorkovsky made his fortune in controversial loans-for-shares privatization in the 1990s but his supporters say he turned Yukos into Russia's most transparent company.

© 2010 AFP

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