Monday 29 May 2017

Oil oligarch facing return to gulag after guilty verdict

Mikhail Khodorkovsky pictured yesterday in a Moscow court as a judge reads the verdict in his second trial
Mikhail Khodorkovsky pictured yesterday in a Moscow court as a judge reads the verdict in his second trial

Roland Oliphant in Moscow

MIKHAIL KHODORKOVSKY, the former oil oligarch, is likely to be handed another long prison term in a Siberian gulag after being found guilty yesterday of embezzlement and laundering stolen money.

In a Moscow court, Judge Victor Danilkin said the former chief executive of the oil company Yukos, and Platon Lebedev, his business partner, were guilty of illegally obtaining $25bn (€19bn) in oil revenues from the now defunct company.

"The court has found that Mikhail Khodorkovsky and Platon Lebedev committed embezzlement acting in collusion with a group of people and using their professional positions," Mr Danilkin told a courtroom full of media and relations of the defendants.

Mr Khodorkovsky's legal team said he would appeal, and criticised the judge for bowing to outside pressure.

"We have no doubt that the court was pressured and the court did not make an independent decision," one of his lawyers said.

Mr Khodorkovsky and Mr Lebedev appeared unmoved, the former oligarch merely glancing towards his mother upon hearing the verdict.

Police arrested 30 people outside the court, where protesters chanted "freedom" and "down with Putin". Vladimir Putin, the Russian prime minister and former president, dismantled Yukos after Mr Khodorkovsky challenged the Russian establishment.

The defence has maintained that the charges, which amount to stealing all the oil Yukos produced between 1998 and 2003, are absurd and politically motivated.

The judge's verdict -- juries are unusual in Russia -- seemed not to take account of testimony by public figures including German Gref, the head of Russia's biggest state-owned bank, who said that the trading at the heart of the case was legal.

The judge, who read the detailed verdict for eight hours before adjourning, also dismissed positive audits of Yukos by PricewaterhouseCoopers as based on incomplete and false information.

Hillary Clinton, US secretary of state, said the verdict raised "serious questions about selective prosecution -- and about the rule of law being overshadowed by political considerations".

Guido Westerwelle, the German foreign minister, said he was "very worried".

"The way the trial has been conducted is extremely dubious and a step backward on the road toward a modernisation of the country."

Reading the full verdict and sentencing is expected to take several days.

Most observers expect Mr Khodorkovsky to be in prison at least until 2017, although if the judge shows leniency he could be out in three years.

Once Russia's richest man, he is reaching the end of an eight-year sentence for tax evasion, much of it served in a Soviet-era gulag in Siberia.

That conviction was widely viewed as punishment for funding opposition parties.

Mr Putin has made his views clear. In a television phone-in on December 16, long before the verdict was delivered, he compared Mr Khodorkovsky to Bernard Madoff, the US fraudster, and said that "thieves should sit behind bars". (©Daily Telegraph, London)

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