Vladimir Putin used a marathon televised phone-in session with the Russian people yesterday to rail against the jailed oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky, Russia's liberal opposition and the traitor who betrayed Russian spies in the US.
Mr Putin said that Mr Khodorkovsky, formerly the richest man in Russia, had been proven guilty and that a "thief should sit in jail". He has previously criticised Mr Khodorkovsky, who has been in prison since 2003, but these remarks come just two weeks before a judge is due to give his verdict in a second trial. If found guilty again, Mr Khodorkovsky could be sentenced to a further 14 years. His current sentence runs out next year.
Mr Putin compared Mr Khodorkovsky's punishment to the 150-year jail sentence given to US fraudster Bernie Madoff. "Everything looks much more liberal here," he said. Lawyers for the jailed tycoon expressed outrage at Mr Putin's statement and said it amounted to further pressure on the judge to return a guilty verdict.
The Prime Minister's ninth annual "conversation" lasted more than four hours, during which time Mr Putin fielded questions from callers, studio guests, and live link-ups across Russia, as well as questions that had been sent in by email, SMS and even telegram. Producers said that more than 2 million people had called or written in, though the process of who got through to the Prime Minister seemed, as usual, to be carefully controlled.
As always, there were a number of leading questions that allowed him to make policy announcements, and people who simply wanted to express their gratitude. "Vladimir Vladimirovich," said one young girl in the studio, using the Prime Minister's name and patronymic. "You're clearly a very talented person, and recently we found out that you can also play the piano and sing. What other talents are you hiding from us?" She was referring to a recent charity event, where Mr Putin took to the stage to sing Fats Domino's hit "Blueberry Hill".