Image: Khodorkovsky
Sergey Ponomarev  /  AP
Mikhail Khodorkovsky stands behind bars at a court room in Moscow, Monday, Dec. 27, 2010.
updated 12/27/2010 6:14:00 PM ET 2010-12-27T23:14:00

To Russian prosecutors, imprisoned oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky is guilty of more crimes: They say he stole nearly $30 billion in oil from his own company and laundered the proceeds. To others, he is a dissident who stood up to the powerful Vladimir Putin.

Whatever he is, Khodorkovsky, once the country's richest man, could be spending more time in jail. And many here point to one man: Putin.

Khodorkovsky's conviction on Monday of stealing from his company, Yukos, demonstrated that little has changed under Putin's successor, President Dmitry Medvedev, despite his promises to strengthen the rule of law and make courts an independent branch of government.

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The verdict showed that Putin, now the prime minister, still holds great power. This month, he said, Khodorkovsky was a proven criminal who should sit in prison.

Hundreds of Khodorkovsky supporters rallied outside the courthouse, holding up signs saying "Freedom" and "Russia without Putin." Police roughly detained some of them as they chanted "Freedom" and "Down with Putin."

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton led a chorus of political figures in the United States and Europe in condemning the verdict.

Image: Khodorkovsky, Lebedev
Sergey Ponomarev  /  AP
Mikhail Khodorkovsky, center, and his co-defendant Platon Lebedev, right, are escorted to a court room in Moscow, Russia, Monday, Dec. 27, 2010.

It "raises serious questions about selective prosecution and about the rule of law being overshadowed by political considerations," she said.

Khodorkovsky is nearing the end of an eight-year sentence after being convicted of tax fraud in a case seen as punishment for challenging the Kremlin's economic and political power, in part by funding opposition parties in parliament.

Putin, who was president at the time and is seen as the driving force behind the latest trial, has not ruled out a return to the presidency in 2012. He appears unwilling to risk the possibility that a freed Khodorkovsky could help unite and lead his political foes.

Being such an opposition leader would be a remarkable transformation for Khodorkovsky.

Once one of the reviled oligarchs who controlled much of Russia's economy and dictated their terms to the Kremlin, he has become a modern day political dissident and intellectual, a symbol of the struggle for democracy in Putin's Russia.

Like millions of political prisoners under Soviet dictator Josef Stalin, he spent time in a Siberian prison camp, where he was assigned to a workshop sewing shapeless gloves. Much of the past two years, he has been shuttling back and forth in handcuffs from a Moscow jail to the stuffy courtroom he sat in on Monday.

His demeanor in court, however, and his ideas, expressed not only in testimony but in published essays and letters, have won him wide respect.

His hair, now gray, is cropped short and his complexion is pasty from lack of sun and exercise, but at 47 he appears strong.

It was clear from the opening pages of the verdict that the judge had found Khodorkovsky and his business partner Platon Lebedev guilty. Reading the full verdict and announcing the sentence was expected to take several days.

The conviction on charges of stealing nearly $30 billion worth of the oil that Yukos produced from 1998 to 2003 and laundering the proceeds could keep him behind bars until at least 2017. Prosecutors accused Khodorkovsky and Lebedev of taking the oil from Yukos' own production units and then selling it abroad at higher prices.

The defense called the charges ridiculous, arguing that prosecutors do not understand the oil business, including the payment of transit fees and export duties.

One of Khodorkovsky's lawyers, Vadim Klyuvgant, said Monday that if this logic were extended to the state oil and gas company Gazprom, the same charges could be brought against Medvedev.

"The court ruled that the difference between the oil price at the production site and at the market represents theft," Klyuvgant said. "Gazprom, where Medvedev served as board chairman, buys oil at the production site at a price 10 times lower than the market price in Rotterdam.

"Isn't that selective justice? Do they have any shame?" he asked.

Numerous witnesses, including current and former government officials, testified during the 20-month trial that the charges against the men were absurd.

In the courtroom, Judge Viktor Danilkin read the verdict in a rapid-fire monotone, his low voice drowned out at times by loud chants from outside. Khodorkovsky and Lebedev sat impassively in a glass cage.

Khodorkovsky exchanged glances with his elderly mother, Marina. His father, Boris, sat next to her, his head bowed.

"Frankly speaking I'm just shocked," Khodorkovsky's mother said. "Before I thought the judge was a clever and professional person. I still think so but I guess he was subjected to strong pressure and that he is ashamed to look up."

The judge rarely raised his eyes as he read for more than seven hours with two short breaks. Khodorkovsky's lawyers estimated that if Danilkin maintains the current pace, he could finish reading the hundreds of pages remaining in another couple of days and then announce the sentence. They then plan to appeal.

Boris Nemtsov, who was among a number of opposition leaders who joined the protest rally, said the case has nothing to do with the law or justice.

"Danilkin is the person who will make public the political decision primarily of citizen Putin, who is suffering from an acute form of Khodorkovsky phobia," Nemtsov said. "He needs to be treated."

When Putin came to power in 2000, he set out to tame the oligarchs. He made clear they could keep their wealth if they agreed to stay out of politics.

Khodorkovsky refused to obey. He funded opposition parties in parliament, which at the time still had the power to block Kremlin legislation. He also supported independent media as the Kremlin was taking over the last national television network outside of its control.

Unlike some of the other oligarchs, he did not flaunt his wealth by buying yachts and English country estates, something Putin has tolerated.

Khodorkovsky used his money to provide training programs for young public servants, economists, journalists and social workers, as part of an effort to strengthen civil society and support Western-style democracy.

He also pushed for financial transparency in business. He had created his business empire in the Wild East days of the 1990s, buying up state property at bargain prices and riding roughshod over minority shareholders as he consolidated his control.

By the time Putin came around, he was eager to join the ranks of global business and play by the rules.

His confrontation with Putin came to a head in February 2003, when during a televised meeting he questioned state oil company Rosneft's purchase of a private oil company for hundreds of millions of dollars more than it was worth. The implication was that the difference went into Kremlin pockets.

Khodorkovsky's arrest in October 2003 and the subsequent confiscation of his Yukos oil company allowed the government to reassert control over the energy sector and set an example for other wealthy businessmen, who have obediently followed Kremlin orders ever since.

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Most of Yukos ended up in the hands of Rosneft, whose board chairman is one of Putin's closest lieutenants.

The Kremlin also consolidated its hold over political life. Soon after Khodorkovsky's arrest, parties that he had funded were shut out of parliament or sidelined. New controls were imposed on non-governmental organizations, like those once funded by Khodorkovsky, that worked to help strengthen civil society.

On Friday, Khodorkovsky published an opinion piece in the daily Nezavisimaya Gazeta containing a scathing criticism of Putin. "I wish Putin kindness and tolerance, I wish him to be loved, not feared. Maybe not by all, but loved sincerely and unselfishly, and not just by dogs," he wrote in a reference to Putin's fondness for animals.

Medvedev, who despite his title remains Putin's junior partner, has promised to strengthen the rule of law as part of his mission to modernize Russia and attract more foreign investment. An acquittal in the Khodorkovsky trial would have been seen as evidence that Medvedev has the power to deliver on his promises.

Khodorkovsky's 25-year-old son Pavel, who works for an Internet media company in New York, held his own small protest in Times Square.

"He is very idealistic, he believes in what he's fighting for: a proper country, rule of law, civil society," he said in a telephone interview. "It sounds banal in the U.S., but in Russia any other business can be taken away, the court system can be used as a tool."


Vladimir Isachenkov contributed to this report.

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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