Former Russian oil tycoon convicted for fraud (Lead)

December 27th, 2010 - 11:17 pm ICT by IANS  

Moscow, Dec 27 (IANS/RIA Novosti) Russia’s former oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky and his business partner Platon Lebedev, both of whom have been jailed for tax evasion, were Monday found guilty of embezzlement by a Moscow court.Khodorkovsky and Lebedev, who have already spent seven years behind bars, are facing new charges of embezzling 218 tonnes of oil from Khodorkovsky’s former oil firm Yukos and laundering over 3 billion rubles ($97.5 million) in revenues.

The two men face up to 14 years in jail, though a sentence has not yet been handed down in the much publicised case which the defendants claimed was politically motivated.

Prosecutors demanded the court sentence the convicts, whose prison terms in the previous case were due to expire in 2011, to 14 years in jail overall, which means they would spend up to seven more years in prison.

The Khamovniki court banned the live broadcast of the verdict announcement, preventing over 100 journalists from covering the event.

Only cameramen of Russian and foreign TV channels and over 30 representatives of print media were allowed into the court.

The defence for Khodorkovsky and Lebedev earlier said prosecutors could press a third set of charges against the ex-Yukos executives in the near future.

Russian experts said that the guilty verdict to jailed ex-Yukos head Khodorkovsky was predictable, given the current political situation in the country, but suggested that punishment for Russia’s most renowned oligarch may be less strict than prosecutors had demanded.

“It would be strange if the verdict was not guilty. It was determined by the logic of the process, and Judge (Viktor) Danilkin has no choice,” Alexei Mukhin, who heads Russia’s Center for Political Information, told RIA Novosti.

When asked to share his opinion on whether the court’s decision was independent, the expert referred to Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev’s recent comments on the Khodorkovsky case.

During his question-and-answer session with Russians earlier this month, Putin said: “I think that a thief belongs in jail.” Medvedev said in an interview with leading Russian TV channels Friday that “no official has the right to express his position on this case until the verdict”.

“Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s conclusion could be interpreted as an attempt to put pressure on the judge… at a very high level, and Dmitry Medvedev stressed it… But the president’s reaction was a reaction of a professional lawyer. He understood very well that Vladimir Putin’s words could be used by Khodorkovsky’s defence to challenge the court’s decision.”

“It seems that a long sentence for Khodorkovsky was not that relevant for the ruling tandem (Medvedev and Putin) anymore. I think the judge will try to find a compromise, which means the sentence… will be significantly decreased,” Mukhin said.

The majority of Russians, he said, supported oligarch Khodorkovsky’s imprisonment in 2003 and will apparently support the new verdict, although they have no idea what Putin has against the former Yukos head.

Irina Yasina, who heads the Khodorkovsky foundation and the Liberal Mission Fund, agreed with Mukhin that the verdict was no surprise.

There are no chances for Khodorkovsky to be justified in the process that she described as Putin’s political “vendetta”.

“As a person who had been working with Khodorkovsky for many years, I know when and why (Putin began persecuting Khodorkovsky), but this is a topic of another long and sad discussion,” she said.

Both Khodorkovsky and Lebedev have repeatedly maintained their innocence and claimed that the charges against them were part of a political campaign launched against Khodorkovsky for his support of opposition parties.

Yasina said Monday’s ruling showed that the court in Russia is still far from being independent. However, she said she still hoped the new prison term for Khodorkovsky will be short.

Khodorkovsky’s defence has already announced that it would appeal the verdict.

–IANS/RIA Novosti
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