Extended term expected for jailed former oil tycoon as supporters cite Kremlin influence in political trial
Khodorkovsky found guilty as protests mount against Putin and 'charade' trial
Tom Parfitt in Moscow
Monday 27 December 2010
Russian police officers detain a Mikhail Khodorkovsky supporter outside a court room in Moscow. Photograph: Ivan Sekretarev/AP
The fate of oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky was left hanging in the balance today after a court in Moscow found him guilty of theft and money laundering in a politically tinged trial that is seen as a weathervane for Russia's future course.
Viktor Danilkin, the trial judge, told the packed court that Khodorkovsky, 47, and his business partner, Platon Lebedev, 54, "carried out the embezzlement of property entrusted to the defendants".
But the trial remains delicately poised because Danilkin will not sentence until he finishes reading his full 250-page verdict, which could take several days.
Opposing factions in the Kremlin are said to be in dispute over how much longer the businessman, who has already spend seven years in jail on earlier fraud charges, should stay behind bars.
Khodorkovsky, wearing a scuffed black jacket, and Lebedev, in a white tracksuit top, whispered to each other inside the enclosed dock and ignored the judge as he said the court had established their guilt.
Hundreds of protesters outside the court in the Khamovniki district of southern Moscow shouted "freedom" and "Russia without Putin". Police arrested about 20 people, dragging them out of the crowd and crushing their placards.
Speaking during a recess, Khodorkovsky's lead lawyer, Vadim Klyuvgant, said: "The trial was a charade of justice, the charges were absolutely false, but I fear the sentencing will be very real."
Yury Shmidt, another lawyer, said Danilkin was "not talking, but droning" through his verdict.
Supporters of Khodorkovsky, who part-owned the Yukos oil company and was once Russia's richest man, say the Kremlin controls the court system and singled him out for punishment because he funded opposition politicians.
The oligarch has been in prison since he was seized by special forces as his plane landed to refuel on a Siberian runway in 2003. A court sentenced him and Lebedev to eight years in prison two years later, but a trial on fresh charges of embezzling $25bn (£16bn) of oil began last year.
Analysts say the length of the sentence, which is expected this week or in early January, will show which of two Kremlin clans – the siloviki (security and military veterans) associated with Vladimir Putin, the prime minister, and the liberals grouped mainly around the president, Dmitry Medvedev – has gained supremacy in the country.
Prosecutors want the men to stay in prison until 2017, and Putin said this month that "a thief should be in jail" when he was asked about the trial. Medvedev, however, has distanced himself from the case and said on Friday that "neither the president nor any other official in public service have the right to express their stance on this before the verdict is delivered."
The friction over Khodorkovsky channels into a wider debate over which man from Russia's "ruling tandem" will stand for the presidency in 2012. US diplomats believe Medvedev is "Robin to Putin's Batman" and Putin will try to get back the post he held from 2000 to 2008, according to documents disclosed by WikiLeaks earlier this month. But Medvedev has given muted signals that he'd like to stay in the job.
Andrei Illarionov, a former economic adviser to Putin, told the Guardian outside the court that the liberal camp was unlikely to prevail.
"This prosecution is the result of a coup," he said. "In 2003, the siloviki became afraid that Khodorkovsky and the political forces surrounding him were becoming too powerful, so they decided to arrest him. These people are still dominant in the country and for them it would be a defeat if Khodorkovsky was released."
Vladimir Ryzhkov, a former MP and opposition politician who was also outside the court, said: "There has been open pressure on the judge from Putin who consistently expresses his hatred for Khodorkovsky and says publicly that he is guilty of theft."
Ryzhkov added: "I believe they want to keep him in prison for another three or four years at least, so he is not released until well after the next presidential elections, in 2012." He dismissed suggestions that Medvedev might ensure a softer sentence. "There is never any action behind Medvedev's rhetoric," he said.
One protester among the crowd opposite the court was Vladimir Yurovsky, 54, the manager of a small Moscow financial services company.
"I've seen the indictments and they are absurd," he said, adding. "I once worked for a company that competed with Khodorkovsky's business and he took away our clients. But it was done in a gentlemanly way that only demanded respect."
The decision comes as leaked US embassy cables reveal that US diplomats believe attempts by the Russian government to demonstrate due process in the trial are "lipstick on a political pig".
Despite the protests, many Russians are indifferent to Khodorkovsy's fate, believing that oligarchs who grew rich in the turbulent 1990s should also be prosecuted.
"Given such significant international implications to the case, and given Khodorkovsky's former stature, one might expect a large amount of focus on the Yukos case inside Russia," noted a US diplomat in Moscow last year, according to the WikiLeaks documents. "However, most Russians continue to pay scant attention."
The trial resumes tomorrow.
Russia accuses West of meddling in Khodorkovsky's trial
In a statement, the Foreign Ministry also rejected as groundless Western officials' suggestions that the trial of Khodorkovsky, who was found guilty on Monday of large-scale theft and money laundering, was an example of selective justice.
The United States and European nations said the verdict raised doubts about the Kremlin's commitment to the rule of law and human rights, and warned they were closely watching the case.
Referring to comments from Washington and European Union capitals about the trial, the ministry said: "We would like to once again underscore that this issue relates to the competence of the court system of the Russian Federation."
"Attempts to apply pressure on the court are unacceptable," it said in a statement. "We are counting on everyone to mind his own business -- both at home and in the international arena."
A judge edged on Tuesday towards sentencing Khodorkovsky, who has been in jail since 2003, ploughing through reading out a 250-page guilty verdict which has renewed doubts on the rule of law in Russia.
Judge Viktor Danilkin is expected to hand down the sentence on Khodorkovsky, once Russia's richest man, after he has finished reading out the verdict sometime later this week.
The judge found Khodorkovsky guilty of money laundering and a multibillion-dollar oil theft on Monday, a verdict that his lawyers and Western governments said smacked of political meddling in the judicial system. Khodorkovsky's defence team has alleged government pressure on the judge and vowed an appeal.
Prosecutors are seeking an additional six-year prison term for Khodorkovsky, the former Yukos oil company CEO who is 10 months from the end of an eight-year sentence imposed after a previous trial during Vladimir Putin's 2000-2008 presidency.
One of the young tycoons who built fortunes after the Soviet Union's 1991 collapse, Khodorkovsky fell out with Putin's Kremlin after airing corruption allegations, challenging state control over oil exports and funding opposition parties.
Putin is now prime minister but remains Russia's most powerful man. His successor, Dmitry Medvedev, has made freeing Russia's courts of political influence and corruption, along modernising the economy, two of the top goals on his presidency.
Police blocked the streets within 100 metres of Moscow's Khamovnichesky court on Tuesday, a day after hundreds of protestors gathered outside, calling for Khodorkovsky's release and shouting "Shame!." Police detained about 30 demonstrators.
A harsh sentence in Khodorkovsky's second trial would draw further criticism of Medvedev, the protege Putin steered into the presidency in 2008 when he ran up against a constitutional limit of two straight Kremlin terms.
Medvedev has courted U.S. and EU support for modernisation, putting on a more pleasant face than Putin often showed in his presidency and travelling as far as California's Silicon Valley in search of ideas for innovation.
Reacting to a verdict she said "raises serious questions about ... the rule of law being overshadowed by political considerations," U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stressed independent courts are a necessary for modernisation.
"We welcome President Medvedev's modernisation plans, but their fulfilment requires the development of a climate where due process and judicial independence are respected," Clinton said on Monday.
German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said he was "very worried" about the guilty verdict. "The circumstances of the proceedings are highly alarming and a step backward for the country on its road towards modernisation."
Medvdev is struggling to show significant results on his reform initiatives as a 2012 presidential election approaches.
Putin, the dominant figure in Russia's ruling tandem, has said he and Medvedev will decide together on a Kremlin candidate for the vote, but many Russians believe Putin will ultimately make the choice.
The two leaders set conflicting tones in the days before the verdict's delivery, with Putin telling the nation that Khodorkovsky had blood on his hands and Medvdev stressing that no official should comment in advance of the verdict.
After his 2003 arrest, Yukos was bankrupted by back-tax claims and its top assets sold off into state hands, deepening Western concerns about property rights and the rule of law.
In the second trial, prosecutors said Khodorkovsky stole $27 billion (17.5 billion pounds) in oil from Yukos subsidiaries through pricing schemes and laundered some of the money, charges his lawyers dismissed as an absurd pretext to keep him behind bars.
(Additional reporting by Arshad Mohammed in Washington; writing by Steve Gutterman; editing by David Stamp)
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