Image: Mikhail Khodorkovsky, Platon Lebedev
Alexander Zemlianichenko Jr  /  AP
Mikhail Khodorkovsky, left, and his co-defendant Platon Lebedev, talk behind bars at a court room in Moscow, Russia, on Tuesday, Dec. 28. 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.
updated 12/28/2010 12:47:57 PM ET 2010-12-28T17:47:57

Russia's Foreign Ministry on Tuesday fired back at U.S. and European criticism of the second conviction of jailed oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, telling Western leaders to mind their own business.

Khodorkovsky, a billionaire oligarch who posed a challenge to Vladimir Putin early in his presidency, was convicted Monday of stealing oil from his own company and laundering the proceeds.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton led a chorus of political figures in the United States and Europe in condemning the ruling, saying that it raised "serious questions about selective prosecution and about the rule of law being overshadowed by political considerations."

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The Russian Foreign Ministry said the claims were unfounded and accused the West of trying to put pressure on the court.

"We expect everyone to mind their own business — at home and in the international arena," the ministry statement said.

Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt was undeterred by the Russian warning, writing in a blog post Tuesday that the ruling against Khodorkovsky "makes it difficult to liberate oneself from the suspicion that the verdict was steered by political dictate rather than by judicial balance."

The sentence, expected to be announced before the end of the week, is likely to keep Khodorkovsky behind bars for several more years. The judge on Tuesday continued to read his verdict, a lengthy summary of the 20-month trial.

The street in front of the courthouse was blocked by police to prevent a repeat of Monday's protest, when a few hundred demonstrators chanted "Freedom!" and "Down with Putin!" at times drowning out the reading of the verdict.

Judge Vladimir Danilkin has been reading in a low monotone and so quickly that even Khodorkovsky's lawyers sitting directly in front of him say they have had trouble understanding.

Khodorkovsky's lead lawyer, Vadim Klyuvgant, told reporters at the end of Tuesday's session that so far the verdict has made little sense.

"Well, I don't know, it might be my personal peculiarities of perception, but, first, it is very difficult to understand what is being uttered, and second, when you do manage to capture something, it is difficult to understand its logic, let alone any grounds for an honest and just assessment."

The Foreign Ministry said the case against Khodorkovsky and his business partner Platon Lebedev involved "serious charges of tax evasion and money laundering," crimes that are punishable under the law in any country.

"In the United States, by the way, people are given life sentences for such crimes," the ministry statement said.

This was an echo of a recent statement by Putin, now prime minister, that Khodorkovsky's punishment was less harsh than the 150-year prison sentence handed down in the U.S. to disgraced financier Bernard Madoff, who cheated thousands of investors with losses estimated at around $20 billion.

"Everything looks much more liberal here," Putin said.

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Klyuvgant said the ministry's statement showed its lack of understanding about the current case against Khodorkovsky, in which he is not charged with tax evasion.

Khodorkovsky was convicted of tax evasion in his first trial and is nearing the end of an eight-year sentence in that case, which was 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 legal attack on Khodorkovsky, has not ruled out a return to the presidency in 2012. He appears unwilling to risk the possibility that a free Khodorkovsky could help unite and lead his political foes.

The White House said it was troubled by what appears to be "an abusive use of the legal system for improper ends" and said the ruling hurts Russia's ability to improve ties with the United States.

The Obama administration has worked to "reset" ties with Russia under President Dmitry Medvedev, who has promised to strengthen the rule of law as part of his mission to modernize Russia and increase foreign investment. But Khodorkovsky's conviction demonstrates how little has changed in Russia since Medvedev succeeded Putin more than two years ago.

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