Mikhail Kkhodorkovsky, once Russia's richest man, has been found guilty of stealing billions of dollars worth of oil from his own companies and laundering much of the proceeds, a verdict that could keep him behind bars for another seven years.
The presiding judge, Viktor Danilkin, began reading out the lengthy verdict yesterday, saying that Khodorkovsky and his business partner Platon Lebedev had led "an organised group created especially for the theft of oil" and "created fictitious companies to transfer the embezzled assets abroad".
Mr Danilkin's monotone was often drowned out by about 300 Khodorkovsky supporters who gathered outside the courthouse, chanting "freedom" and "shame" in the street. About a dozen of them were arrested by riot police for blocking traffic, with some dragged screaming on to waiting buses.
For years, Western officials have been warning Russia that the Khodorkovsky case could discourage investment and deepen Russia's reputation as a country where the law is applied selectively. Yesterday's verdict met with a chorus of international condemnation.
"Today's conviction ... raises serious questions about selective prosecution – and about the rule of law being overshadowed by political considerations," said the US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. "This and similar cases have a negative impact on Russia's reputation for fulfilling its international human rights obligations."
Chris Bryant, chair of the British parliamentary all-party Russia group, denounced the verdict as "entirely predictable". He said that the Russian authorities had "failed a key test". And Lyudmila Alexeyeva, one of Russia's best known rights defenders, told Interfax: "I expected this judgement. But all the same I am upset. The judge would have had to have been a hero to have given an acquittal verdict."
Khodorkovsky's lawyer, Vadim Klyuvgant, said during a recess that the judge's verdict appeared simply to be paraphrasing, and at times quoting, the claims of the prosecution. "I haven't heard a single word in favour of the defence," Mr Klyuvgant said. "He's going strictly by the accusing side's version."
Khodorkovsky has served seven years of a separate eight-year sentence he received for fraud and tax evasion in 2005, part of the legal assault that began against him after he challenged the then-President Vladimir Putin in the arena of politics.
As his release date drew near, prosecutors brought new charges against him last year, including the theft of 350 million tonnes of oil, and asked for an additional sentence that would keep Khodorkovsky locked up at least until 2017. The defence estimates it will take most of this week for the judge to finish reading the verdict and pronounce a sentence. The initial date for the verdict, 15 December, was pushed back, in an apparent attempt to minimise the impact of media coverage, which reaches a fraction of its usual audience during the winter holidays.
Mr Putin, who is now Prime Minister, redoubled his attacks against Khodorkovsky in the weeks leading up to the trial. "Thieves should sit in prison," he said in reference to Khodorkovsky on 4 December. President Dmitry Medvedev later made a veiled criticism of that statement.
Lawyers and human rights activists said the remarks were a blatant attempt to influence the court, which they see as carrying out Mr Putin's revenge against Khodorkovsky. US diplomatic cables released yesterday by WikiLeaks described the trial as the application of "a superficial rule-of-law gloss to a cynical system where political enemies are eliminated with impunity".
But Khodorkovsky appeared to take the verdict in his stride. Sitting in the glassed-in dock, he frequently broke out in laughter and smiled at supporters in the courtroom. "We've been preparing for the worst," said Konstantin Rivkin, another lawyer for the defence.
Khodorkovsky's oil company, Yukos, once the largest in Russia, was pronounced bankrupt in 2007 after most of its assets were seized by tax authorities and sold off to companies controlled by the state. Most of Yukos's top executives have either fled the country or been jailed.Reuse content