MOSCOW, (Reuters) – A Russian judge pronounced
and his business partner Platon Lebedev guilty of embezzlement today at the end of the jailed former oil tycoon’s politically charged second trial.
The judge said the two men were also guilty of laundering stolen oil funds. Sentencing was not expected until later.
The accusation of stealing oil from his now-defunct company Yukos was the main charge against Khodorkovsky in a trial seen as a test of the Kremlin’s will to impose the rule of law.
Prosecutors have asked the judge to sentence Khodorkovsky to six more years in prison on top of the eight years he is serving now.
Reading the verdict in the politically charged trial of a chief Kremlin foe, judge Viktor Danilkin said the court had established that Khodorkovsky and Lebedev “carried out the embezzlement of property entrusted to the defendants.”
Enclosed in a glass-and-steel courtroom cage, Khodorkovsky and Lebedev pointed ignored the judge as he read out the widely expect guilty verdict, whispering to one another and reading books and documents.
A crowd of a few hundred supporters outside the courthouse chanted “Freedom!”.
Khodorkovsky, once Russia’s richest man and head of its biggest oil producer, is nearing the end of an eight-year sentence imposed in a fraud and tax-evasion trial that shaped Vladimir Putin’s 2000-2008 presidency.
In his new trial, prosecutors argued he stole $27 billion in oil from Yukos subsidiaries through pricing schemes. His lawyers dismiss the charges as an absurd, politically motivated pretext to keep him behind bars.
For government critics, a conviction and lengthy sentence would signal that longstanding Kremlin promises to reform a court system marred by corruption and political influence are insincere.
Dressed in black, Khodorkovsky, 47, was led into the cage in the Moscow shortly before Danilkin entered and began reading the verdict. Dressed in black and looking pale but composed, Khodorkovsky waved and flashed a smile to the packed room.
The sentence, which many suspect will be decided in the Kremlin, will be widely seen as a sign of whether President Dmitry Medvedev has the will — and the clout — to free a man whose imprisonment is a symbol of Putin’s rule.
It was unclear when the judge would finish reading the verdict and announce a sentence.
Putin, Russia’s most powerful politician, dominates what officials call a ruling tandem with Medvedev even though as prime minister, he is subordinate to the protege he steered into the presidency in 2008.
Both men say they will decide together who will run for president in 2012 as the Kremlin’s shoo-in candidate, but many Russians suspect it is Putin who will make the choice.
Medvedev has championed a progressive Russia underpinned by the rule of law, and said improving a justice system marred by corruption and political influence is a crucial step.
But with little progress visible, Russians who support those goals fear his talk amounts to little more than window-dressing for Putin’s more restrictive policies and his continued rule. The guilty verdict for Khodorkovsky will reinforce those doubts.
A sentence of six more years would keep him in jail until late 2017, close to the end of the next president’s six-year term, clouding Medvedev’s promises of the rule of law if he remains in the Kremlin.
Khodorkovsky’s wife Inna told Russia’s Snob magazine yesterday that she was sure her husband would remain in prison until at least 2012.
Khodorkovsky, 47, fell foul of the Kremlin during Putin’s first term after he aired corruption allegations, challenged the state’s control over exports of Russian oil and quietly funded opposition parties.
After his arrest in 2003, Yukos was bankrupted by back-tax claims and its assets sold off, most ending up in state hands, deepening Western concerns about property rights and the rule of law in Russia under Putin.
A sense of personal rivalry between Putin and Khodorkovsky has persisted. In televised comments on Dec 16, Putin suggested Khodorkovsky had been involved in killings, said his economic crimes had been proven in court and that “a thief must be in jail”.
Putin later insisted he was talking about Khodorkovsky’s existing conviction, not the current trial.
But Khodorkovsky’s lawyers accused Putin of exerting influence and Medvedev signalled his disapproval, saying in a nationally televised interview on Friday that no official has the right to comment before a verdict is reached.