A judge read the sentence Thursday, but to supporters of jailed oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky the words came straight from Prime Minister Vladimir Putin: Six more years in prison for stealing his own company’s oil.
Putin has been seen as the driving force behind the unrelenting legal attack on Khodorkovsky, who challenged him early in his presidency and has been imprisoned since 2003. As Putin considers a return to the presidency in 2012, he appears unwilling to risk the possibility that a freed Khodorkovsky could help lead his political foes.
The U.S. and Europe condemned the sentence. The U.S. State Department described it as “an abusive use of the legal system for improper ends.”
The defense said much of Judge Viktor Danilkin’s verdict was copied from the indictment and the prosecutors’ final arguments.
“Curse you and your children!” Khodorkovsky’s mother said when Danilkin read the sentence.
“They must have tortured him to get him to say what he did,” Marina Khodorkovskaya said earlier of the judge’s reading of the verdict, a summary of the trial that took him five days to get through. “He has put his title of judge in shame.”
The trial had been seen as a test of the rule of law in Russia, but its outcome exposes how little has changed under President Dmitry Medvedev, despite his promises to make courts an independent branch of government.
“It’s a very cruel and absurd sentence that proves the well-known fact that Russia has no independent courts,” said Lyudmila Alexeyeva, a veteran rights activist and chairwoman of the Moscow Helsinki Group. “An independent court would have acquitted the defendants and punished the investigators who concocted the charges.”
Following a 20-month trial, Danilkin on Monday convicted Khodorkovsky and his business partner Platon Lebedev on charges of stealing almost $30 billion worth of the oil that his Yukos company produced from 1998 to 2003 and laundering the proceeds. Lebedev also was sentenced to 14 years.
The defense has said the charges reflected a lack of understanding of the oil business, including the payment of transit fees and export duties. Numerous witnesses, including current and former government officials, testified that Khodorkovsky could not have stolen what amounted to almost all of the oil Yukos had produced.
The charges also contradicted the first trial, in which Khodorkovsky was convicted of evading taxes on Yukos profits. His eight-year sentence in that case had been set to end in 2011.
Danilkin sentenced Khodorkovsky to 14 years, as prosecutors had demanded, and said the new term will be counted from his 2003 arrest and end in 2017. He said the defendants present “a menace to society.”
Throughout the trial, Khodorkovsky and Lebedev were locked in a glass cage in the courtroom and guarded by a dozen special-forces officers, some armed with automatic weapons.
In a statement read by defense lawyer Vadim Klyuvgant to reporters outside the courthouse, the 47-year-old Khodorkovsky expressed some optimism, saying: “We have not lost hope and nor should our friends.”
Khodorkovsky also said the verdict showed that the “Churov rule” was alive and well.
Vladimir Churov, chairman of the Central Election Commission, said a few years ago that his first rule was that Putin is always right. And if he’s not, “it means I have misunderstood something.”
Klyuvgant said the judge “was only the nominal author of the verdict.”
“It makes no sense to give any assessment or analysis of a verdict where one sentence contradicts another in a sign that it had more than one author,” he said.
Marina Khodorkovskaya, speaking outside the courthouse before television cameras, made a direct appeal to Medvedev. “Mr. President, a man of the same generation as my son, aren’t you ashamed to be the servant of a conscienceless, immoral man?” she said.
Khodorkovsky’s lawyers said they will appeal. Following the first trial, the appeals court reduced the sentence by one year.
Khodorkovsky had angered Putin by funding opposition parties in parliament, which at the time had the power to oppose Kremlin policies and influence the choice of prime minister. He also pursued his own oil export plans independent of the state pipeline system, and publicly questioned the appearance of Kremlin corruption.
After his arrest, the state confiscated Yukos, which was Russia’s largest and fastest-growing oil company, and sold it off in pieces at fire-sale prices. Most ended up in the hands of state-controlled Rosneft.
Putin also took control of parliament, excluding or sidelining opposition parties, and abolished gubernatorial elections.
Criticism of the sentence quickly poured in from the United States and across Europe.
“We remain concerned by the allegations of serious due process violations, and what appears to be an abusive use of the legal system for improper ends, particularly now that Khodorkovsky and Lebedev have been sentenced to the maximum penalty,” said U.S. State Department spokesman Mark Toner.
“The impression remains that political motives played a role in these proceedings,” German Chancellor Angela Merkel said in a statement. “This contradicts the intention repeatedly voiced by Russia of pursuing the road to the full rule of law.”
When Western governments unleashed similar criticism of Monday’s convictions, Russia pointedly told the U.S. and Europe to mind their own business.
Khodorkovsky and Lebedev will remain in a Moscow jail during their appeals. After the first trial, Khodorkovsky was sent to a labor colony in eastern Siberia near the Chinese border, while Lebedev served the first part of his sentence in a prison above the Arctic Circle.
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