MOSCOW, (Reuters) – Prime Minister Vladimir Putin told Russians yesterday that Mikhail Khodorkovsky belonged in prison, drawing protests from the jailed tycoon’s lawyers who said it amounted to pressure on a trial judge.
Khodorkovsky, once Russia’s richest man, is awaiting a verdict in a second trial and if found guilty of stealing $27 billion from his own company, he could be kept in jail past the 2012 presidential election.
Putin, speaking in his annual question-and-answer session with the Russian people, left little doubt about the denouement of Russia’s biggest trial in years.
“A thief must be in jail,” Putin said, quoting from a popular Soviet-era film whose hero is a tough cop.
Putin suggested again that Khodorkovsky, whom he has compared to U.S. gangster Al Capone, was behind a string of murders.
Lawyers for Khodorkovsky said Putin’s remarks would pressure the trial judge to hand down a guilty verdict and threatened to file a complaint with the European Court of Human Rights.
Putin’s silky performance in the marathon event, which ran for a record 4 hours 25 minutes, demonstrated his authority as Russia’s paramount leader and contrasted with President Dmitry Medvedev’s lacklustre state of the nation speech on Nov 30.
The 58-year-old former KGB spy, who served as Kremlin chief from 2000-2008, dismissed a question from a Reuters reporter about why he had said nothing about his plans for 2012.
“We have gone over and over this, how much more can we talk about it? 2012 is a long way off. Let’s see,” Putin said.
Putin has repeatedly said he and Medvedev will decide who runs in 2012 closer to the event. But a grinning Putin also read out a question asking who ran the country when he was sleeping. “We take turns sleeping.”
Russia’s most popular politician, Putin fielded dozens of questions on everything from poor local services and ethnic tension to puppy training and his love of Japanese food. He avoided mentioning the United States which he has often targeted with harsh rhetoric in previous performances.