Russia: Khodorkovsky – a thief or political prisoner?

Judge Victor Danilkin on December 30 found former oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky and his business partner Platon Lebedev guilty of stealing and laundering billions of dollars of oil revenues. But there are debates both in Russia, and in many countries across the globe, as to whether or not, the sentence is politically motivated.

According to the New York Times, the new indictment “boils down to a single accusation: that the former C.E.O. of the Yukos oil firm and his deputy, Platon Lebedev, were part of an “organized criminal group” that stole 350 million tons of oil from their company between 1998 to 2003.” It was noted that the tonnage exceeds Yukos’s production during the period in question.

Mikhail Khodorkovsky (left) and Platon Lebedev

“Your prosecutors claim that I ran Yukos not as an official chairman, but as the leader of an organised criminal group,” Mr Khodorkovsky wrote earlier, addressing Russian Premier Vladimir Putin. “When you discussed Yukos’s problems with me, with whom did you think you were talking?” he asked Putin.

Khodorkovsky was given a nine-year jail sentence in 2005, later reduced to eight, and had been serving it in a remote Siberian prison six time zones away from Moscow. However, a year ago, he was brought to the capital to stand trial on new charges of embezzlement and fraud.

The sentence effectively adds six years behind bars for Khodorkovsky, since the judge set the sentence to begin in 2003 when he was initially imprisoned on other charges. Instead of a release in 2011, he will now be freed in 2017, CNN reported.

The US, UK and Germany have criticised the new six-year sentence imposed by a Russian court on former oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, according to BBC.

An unnamed senior US administration official, quoted by Reuters news agency, said the sentencing might complicate Russia’s expected entry to the World Trade Organisation in 2011.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel said she was “disappointed” by the sentence.

“The impression remains that political motives played a role in the trial,” she said in a statement.

And UK Foreign Secretary William Hague said he was deeply concerned and urged Russia “to respect the principles of justice and apply the rule of law in a non-discriminatory and proportional way”.

“In the absence of this the UK and much of the international community will regard such a trial as a retrograde step,” Mr Hague added.

U.S. State Department spokesman Mark Toner said after Thursday’s sentencing that Washington remains “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.”

The Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a statement on Tuesday that there was no justification for American and European criticism given the charges against the defendants.

“Allegations about some kind of selective prosecution in Russia are groundless…Russian courts deal with thousands of cases where entrepreneurs are prosecuted,” Foreign Ministry officials stated, while Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has said that Russian courts are independent from any authorities, including the positions of foreign states.

“They are independent from both Russian and foreign authorities,” Lavrov said. “And if someone is very concerned about this sentence, I would like to remind you that any convict has the right to appeal in the order set by the law and this has been, by the way, done by Khodorkovsky’s and Lebedev’s defense layers, according to the media.”

Yuri Schmidt, one of Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s defense attorneys, told the New York Times that “It’s hard to say whether the judge himself was embarrassed by the verdict, but Prime Minister Vladimir Putin made it clear several days ago how the Khodorkovsky trial would unfold when, responding to a question on national television, he declared: “A thief should sit in jail.”

This statement by Putin could possibly be perceived as an attempt to put pressure upon the judge. The outcome of the case is seen by some analysts as a Medvedev’s loss to Putin in his battle for an independent judiciary in the country.

Khodorkovsky’s son, Pavel, told CNN after the conviction that his father will appeal the verdict.

Pavel Khodorkovsky said that he had been expecting a guilty verdict for his father, but also “had hoped that President (Dmitry) Medvedev’s rhetoric about judicial system reform would actually bear some fruit.”

Ben Aris in his article, Khodorkovsky – the making of a myth, for Business New Europe, wrote:“The trouble with this whole story is that even if the forces of law unfairly picked on Khodorkovsky, he is “guilty as charged” says Peter Clateman, a lawyer for Renaissance Capital in Moscow who has been following the case closely. To be fair most observers have criticised the first trial, but no one pretends that Khodorkovsky’s trial had much to do with the letter of the law or was about “guilt” or “innocence.” All the oligarchs were blatantly stealing everything they could in those days, so the issue isn’t whether the law was use to lock up Khodorkovsky and expropriate his company, it’s why all the other oligarchs weren’t arrested and locked up too.”

“Everything he did in his career was designed to make him money… However, is it possible to believe that he went to jail for the betterment of the Russian people? This is unlikely. The best explanation I have heard is that he refused to do a deal with the Kremlin simply because he is pigheaded and bitter about his treatment, in the same way that Hermitage Capital manager Bill Browder and one time largest investor into Russia seems to be bitter about the Kremlin’s effective destruction of his business,” Aris noted.

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