Khodorkovsky nine-year jail sentence confirms worst fears

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The Independent Online

Russia's most significant court case since the collapse of the Soviet Union ended as pro-democracy activists feared, after Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the billionaire oil tycoon, was found guilty and sentenced to nine years in jail.

Russia's most significant court case since the collapse of the Soviet Union ended as pro-democracy activists feared, after Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the billionaire oil tycoon, was found guilty and sentenced to nine years in jail.

Convicted of an array of fraud and tax evasion offences, the sentence ensures that Khodorkovsky, once Russia's richest man, will be behind bars by the time a new presidential election is held in 2008.

It was his trenchant opposition to the Kremlin and President Vladimir Putin while chief executive of the oil giant Yukos that his supporters say got him into trouble in the first place. He financed anti-Kremlin political parties and criticised the government.

Yesterday he and his allies claimed the conviction was politically motivated and a warning to anyone who dares challenge the Kremlin. Khodorkovsky said he would fight for his freedom and that of Russia.

"I will fight for freedom - my own freedom ... and especially that of future generations. For them my fate should become a lesson and an example," Khodorkovsky said in a statement. His business partner, Platon Lebedev, was also sentenced to nine years for similar crimes.

US President George Bush said Washington had raised concerns about the process and would keep watch on how any appeal is handled. Mr Bush said he had "expressed my concerns about the case" directly to Mr Putin.

"As I explained to him, here you're innocent until proven guilty, and it appeared to us - at least people in my administration - that it looked like he had been judged guilty prior to [having] a fair trial," he told reporters in Washington.

Relations between the White House and the Kremlin have grown increasingly strained over the case and what many in the West see as other examples of Moscow's backsliding on democracy and economic reform.

Nobody had doubted that Khodorkovsky would be found guilty but many thought he would be given a lighter sentence to minimise damage to Russia's reputation the case has already caused.

When news of the verdict reached his supporters outside the Moscow courtroom they began to rhythmically chant "Disgrace! Disgrace!", waved their flags and whistled and shouted as riot police hemmed them in. Khodorkovsky's lawyers said they intended to appeal against the verdict, first in Russia and perhaps later at the European Court of Human Rights. Meanwhile, Khodorkovsky is expected to have to defend himself against a slew of unrelated money laundering charges. Yesterday he was convicted of embezzling the Russian state of hundreds of millions of dollars, of corporate and personal tax evasion, of flouting court orders, and of fraud.

The court ruled that he and Lebedev had been members of a criminal enterprise whose purpose was to organise rigged auctions during the 1990s at which it snapped up state-owned assets, such as Yukos, for a fraction of their value. Having spent one and a half years on remand, Khodorkovsky, 41, a man used to the best money can buy, now faces a seven-and-a-half year prison stint.

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