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U.S.: Khodorkovsky sentence an abuse of justice

The United States suggested Thursday the sentencing of a former Russian tycoon to six more years in prison was an abuse of justice and a senior U.S. official said it may impede Russia's entry into the World Trade Organization.
Mikhail Khodorkovsky
Mikhail Khodorkovsky looks on from behind a glass enclosure at a court room in Moscow, Russia, on Dec. 30. Khodorkovsky, 47, is in the final year of an eight-year sentence after being convicted of tax evasion. The new conviction on charges of embezzlement and money laundering could keep him behind bars for several more years. Alexander Zemlianichenko Jr / AP
/ Source: news services

The United States suggested Thursday the sentencing of a former Russian tycoon to six more years in prison was an abuse of justice and a senior U.S. official said it may impede Russia's entry into the World Trade Organization.

Despite the harsh U.S. words, analysts said the treatment of Mikhail Khodorkovsky and his co-defendant Platon Lebedev was unlikely to undercut the White House effort to work with the Kremlin where it can on strategic and security issues.

A Russian judge ordered Khodorkovsky jailed until 2017 after being convicted of theft and money-laundering in a case seen by the West as a test of the rule of law in Russia and as a political vendetta against an adversary of Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.

Khodorkovsky's mother cursed the judge when the sentence was read, and said it was clear that he had come under strong pressure and could not have written the "nonsense that he read today."

Defense lawyers argued that Putin was behind the sentence, which matched what prosecutors had demanded for Khodorkovsky when they accused him of stealing oil from his own company and laundering the proceeds.

"You cannot count on the courts to protect you from government officials in Russia," Khodorkovsky said in a statement read outside the courthouse by his lead attorney.

Putin, now prime minister, has been seen as the driving force behind the unrelenting legal attack on Khodorkovsky, who challenged him early in his presidency. As he considers a return to the presidency in 2012, Putin appears unwilling to risk the possibility that a freed Khodorkovsky could help lead his political foes.

The outcome of the second trial exposes how little has changed under President Dmitry Medvedev despite his promises to strengthen the rule of law and 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."

Judge Viktor Danilkin sentenced Khodorkovsky to 14 years, but said the new term will be counted from his 2003 arrest and run concurrently with his first term of eight years.

Following a 20-month trial, the judge 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 judge said he could not have handed down a suspended sentence because the men present "a menace to society" and "their rehabilitation is possible only in the confined space of a prison."

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 his statement, read by Vadim Klyuvgant to reporters outside the courthouse, Khodorkovsky expressed some optimism, saying: "But we have not lost hope and nor should our friends."

Khodorkovsky also said the verdict showed that the "Churov rule" was alive and well, referring to a comment made a few years ago by Vladimir Churov, the chairman of the Central Election Commission, that his first rule was that Putin is always right. And if he's not, "it means I have misunderstood something."

"The judge was only the nominal author of the verdict," Klyuvgant said. "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."

The defense lawyers said much of the judge's verdict was copied from the indictment and the prosecutors' final arguments.

When the sentence was announced in the courtroom, Khodorkovsky's mother burst out with an emotional "curse you and your children," seemingly directed at the judge.

"I believe that the judge is quite professional, and not stupid, so he couldn't write the nonsense that he read today himself. Obviously, he was subjected to pressure, and very strong pressure," Marina Khodorkovsky said.

Speaking outside the courthouse before the television cameras, she addressed her remarks 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.

She urged the president to think about his own teenage son. "How will you explain that to him, how will you look him in the eyes, will you be able to justify your actions?" Marina Khodorkovskaya said. "It's not too late, and you still have time to step back and think."

Khodorkovsky's lawyers said they would appeal.

The defense called the charges ridiculous and said they 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.

Danilkin's conduct during the trial had raised some hopes among Khodorkovsky's family and supporters that he would prove to be more independent than the judge in the previous trial, who openly supported the prosecutors.

Danilkin treated the defendants with respect, took notes during defense testimony and gave the appearance of being interested in establishing the truth in the case. He often joined the defense and the audience in laughing at prosecutors' gaffes and made sarcastic remarks about their evidence.

Those hopes were dashed as soon as Danilkin began to read the verdict.

"The court decision has nothing to do with the law or justice," said Boris Nemtsov, a former deputy prime minister who is now among the leaders of the opposition. "It's Putin's personal vendetta."

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.

Criticism of the trial quickly began to pour 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.

"Simply put, the Russian government cannot nurture a modern economy without also developing an independent judiciary that serves as an instrument for furthering economic growth, ensuring equal treatment under the law, and advancing justice in a predictable and fair way."

Medvedev has made it his mission to modernize Russia by encouraging foreign investment, and an acquittal of Khodorkovsky or even a lighter sentence would have helped reassure businesses that Russia was prepared to strengthen protection of property rights.

"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."

The president of the European Parliament in Brussels said the longer prison sentence for Khodorkovsky showed that Russia still had a long way to go in its promised reform of the judiciary.

"The trials of Mikhail Khodorkovsky were the litmus test of how the rule of law and human rights are treated in today's Russia," Jerzy Buzek said in a statement. "In effect it has become the emblematic symbol of all the systemic problems within the judiciary."

The criticism was likely only to further anger Russia's government, which had responded to Western outrage over Monday's conviction by pointedly telling the U.S. and Europe to mind their own business.

During the appeal process, which could take months, Khodorkovsky and Lebedev will remain in a Moscow jail. 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.


AP writers Vladimir Isachenkov, Mansur Mirovalev and Lynn Berry contributed to this report.