Khodorkovsky sentenced to nine years

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The Independent Online

A Moscow court today declared oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky guilty of an array of charges including fraud and tax evasion, and sentenced him to nine years in prison minus time served.

The declaration of guilt and sentence came in the 12th day of the laborious verdict-reading process in the most closely watched trial of post-Soviet Russia, and one which has been widely criticized as politically motivated.

Khodorkovsky, the former head of the Yukos oil company and once estimated to be Russia's richest man, has already spent 583 days in jail, meaning he would serve about another seven and a half years in prison.

Khodorkovsky looked straight ahead as the sentence was pronounced.

His co-defendant Platon Lebedev, found guilty of the same charges and give the same sentence, said, "There's not a sane person who can understand what you have said."

Supporters have claimed that Khodokovsky's trial was part of a Kremlin-driven campaign to punish him for funding opposition parties and to stifle his own political ambitions. The sentence would keep him in prison well past the 2008 presidential elections and potentially during the 2012 elections as well.

A third defendant in the case, Andrei Krainov, was given a five and a half year suspended sentence.

After the sentences were pronounced, the court took up the final part of the case, discussing evidence and testimony regarding Apatit, a fertilizer component company in which Khodorkovsky and Lebedev allegedly acquired a large stake by rigging a privatization auction. That matter had been seen as a centerpiece of the case, but the statue of limitations on it has expired and the court was expected not to impose a sentence.

Khodorkovsky's lawyers are expected to appeal a guilty verdict and sentence in the 10-day period allotted under Russian law.

Khodorkovsky is one of the so-called oligarchs who became enormously wealthy during the murky post-Soviet privatization of state industries in the 1990s. Such tycoons are widely resented by ordinary Russians and demonstrators denouncing Khodorkovsky have been a daily fixture outside the courthouse during the weeks of verdict-reading.

But there have also been gatherings of Khodorkovsky supporters - who say the trial was revenge for Khodorkovsky's funding of opposition parties and who say the proceedings raised substantial doubt about Russia's commitment to rule of law.

Such concerns have spooked many foreign investors.

"It does make people concerned, leery about an environment they don't understand," U.S. Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez told Russian and U.S. business representatives in Moscow on Tuesday. "Any time the business community sees something that impacts business and doesn't really understand why, then that's a setback because then businesses will not want to invest."

Khodorkovsky, whose fortune was once estimated as high as US$15 billion, has been in jail since his October 2003 arrest when special forces stormed his private plane as it sat on the tarmac at a Siberian airport.

A liberal member of parliament, Vladimir Ryzhkov, suggested Monday that Khodorkovsky's team consider filing an appeal with the European Court of Human Rights, "which will make a decision on the basis of common sense and law," the Interfax news agency reported.