updated 12/23/2003 1:38:45 PM ET 2003-12-23T18:38:45

A Moscow court ruled Tuesday that prosecutors can keep Russia's richest man jailed another three months while investigating him on fraud and tax evasion charges widely considered to be politically motivated.

Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the embattled former chief of Russia's largest oil company, has been detained since Oct. 25. The district court ordered him held until March 25, according to Khodorkovsky's Open Russia foundation. The hearings were closed to the media and public.

The charges against the billionaire Khodorkovsky are seen as part of a Kremlin-backed effort to curb his political clout and avenge his funding of opposition parties. The case has spooked foreign investors and generated concern in the West.

President Vladimir Putin has cast the probe as part of an anti-corruption crusade.

The investigation is believed to be widely supported by average Russians, who resent the handful of businessmen who reaped massive profits amid the Soviet collapse while many people remain mired in poverty.

Khodorkovsky is No. 26 on Forbes magazine's latest list of global billionaires, with an estimated wealth of $8 billion.

Khodorkovsky resigned as chief executive of the Yukos oil company shortly after his arrest, saying he wanted to take the company out of the line of fire. He remains Yukos' top shareholder, although a court has frozen his assets.

Putin reaffirmed Tuesday that the government was not planning a major redistribution of assets gained through the privatization of state property. But he said he was referring only to those who "abided by the law."

The court's decision means Khodorkovsky will remain jailed until after the March 14 presidential election, which Putin is widely expected to win.

The investigation has included numerous searches at Yukos and affiliated companies and banks, and investigations into what prosecutors say are several killings and attempted killings of officials and businessmen who had conflicts with Yukos. Khodorkovsky and Yukos officials deny the allegations.

On Monday, prosecutors said in court they had formally extended Khodorkovsky's pretrial investigation until March 31, but could not produce a document proving that, according to Khodorkovsky's lawyers.

Defense lawyers said the absence of such documents made prosecutors' appeal to keep Khodorkovsky in custody legally void. Khodorkovsky lawyer Genrikh Padva said prosecutors produced a document to prove the investigation was continuing, but he alleged it was flawed.

Padva also argued that prosecutors failed to provide adequate reasons for keeping Khodorkovsky jailed, and said their claims he would flee Russia or pressure witnesses were unsubstantiated.

"All that proves bias and lack of objectivity" by prosecutors, Padva said Tuesday.

Prosecutors also broke the law by charging Khodorkovsky under the now-defunct criminal code that contains harsher punishments than newer laws, Padva said.

The Basmanny district court, which has staunchly backed prosecutors in the past, previously rejected Khodorkovsky's appeal to be released on bail.

The same court also has kept in custody another key Yukos shareholder, Platon Lebedev, and a senior Yukos security officer accused of involvement in a 1998 double murder.

Copyright 2003 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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