Oil tycoon gets 14-year prison sentence for embezzlement
Defence lawyers lay blame with Putin as judge ignores pleas for leniency
A Moscow judge ignored pleas for leniency yesterday and handed Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the former oil tycoon, a 14-year prison sentence for embezzlement.
Judge Victor Danilkin gave the former head of the oil group Yukos exactly what the prosecution had asked for. The sentence will be counted from Mr Khodorkovsky's 2003 arrest, meaning that he and his business partner, Platon Lebedev, could be released in 2017.
Defence lawyers blamed Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin for the harsh sentence. Mr Putin, who as president turned against Mr Khodorkovsky, said before sentencing in a reference to the former oligarch that "thieves should sit in jail".
In a statement read out by his lawyer, Mr Khodorkovsky said: "You cannot count on the courts to protect you from the whim of bureaucrats in Russia."
International reaction was damning. Mr Khodorkovsky is widely viewed as a political prisoner and symbol of a corrupt Russian judicial system. A senior official from the US administration said the sentencing would complicate Russia's attempt to join the World Trade Organisation.
Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor, said: "The impression remains that political motivations played a role in this trial. This contradicts Russia's frequently repeated intention to pursue full adoption of the rule of law."
The president of the European Parliament said the prison sentence showed that Russia still had a long way to go in its promised judiciary reform.
"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 effect it has become the emblematic symbol of all the systemic problems within the judiciary."
The Russian foreign ministry, speaking after Mr Khodorkovsky was found guilty on Monday, told international critics to mind their own business.
Mr Khodorkovsky and Mr Lebedev were found guilty of embezzling more than £16.3bn (€18.9bn) of oil from Yukos between 1998 and 2003 and laundering the proceeds. It took the judge four days to read through his 250-page verdict before passing sentence.
Mr Khodorkovsky's lawyers maintain that the charges are absurd and based on a failure to understand normal business practices.
"This is not a sentence, it is lawlessness," Yuri Schmidt, one of the lawyers, said.
Both men will appeal against the sentence and the verdict, but have ruled out approaching Dmitry Medvedev, the president, for a pardon.
During the 22-month trial, the defence called serving and former ministers who testified that stealing such a vast amount of oil would have been impossible. But in his summing up, the judge said the testimony indicated the defendants' guilt.
Once Russia's richest man, Mr Khodorkovsky has been behind bars since Russian special forces stormed his private jet and arrested him at gunpoint in 2003.
He has used his time in jail to reinvent himself as a hero of the country's small and embattled liberal opposition, continuing to criticise Mr Putin from his jail cell, giving interviews to Russian and foreign journalists and publishing a series of articles.
The verdict will keep Mr Khodorkovsky out of the way during the 2012 presidential elections. It also shows that Mr Putin, although now prime minister, still holds the reins of power.
The Russian prison service said it had not yet been decided where the two men would serve the sentence. Both were due to finish eight-year sentences for tax evasion next year. (© Daily Telegraph, London)