Russian oil tycoon found guilty

Former Russian oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky has been
found guilty of embezzlement at his politically charged second trial in Moscow.

The judge said Khodorkovsky and his business partner
Platon Lebedev were guilty of stealing from their firm Yukos and laundering the
proceeds.

Khodorkovsky is already serving an eight-year sentence
for fraud and tax evasion from his 2005 trial.

His lawyers say the verdict was the result of official
pressure.

The courtroom is tiny – less than 10m by 10m. Packed into
it were Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s aging parents, a dozen lawyers, 30 or so members
of the public, and over 60 cameramen and photographers. Protesters chanting
“Freedom!” outside in the cold could be heard through the
double-glazed windows.

Perched on a public bench with Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s
mother, he was brought in in handcuffs. His face was strained, but he managed a
smile, and he was quickly put in the reinforced-glass dock along with his
former business partner, Platon Lebedev.

Once a very successful businessman, he is now a symbol of
hope for an opposition hopelessly overpowered by the Russian state and
state-controlled media.

But the hope was soon dashed. Almost as soon as Judge
Viktor Danilkin started reading his verdict, it became apparent that it was
going to be guilty.

Mikhail Khodorkovsky has already served seven years of an
eight-year sentence. Now his time in prison is likely to grow substantially
when the sentence is passed. The judge has a few days left of reading his
verdict before he comes to that.

Khodorkovsky, 47, was due to be released next year, but
the new convictions could see him jailed for much longer.

The two defendants were led into court in handcuffs by
armed guards.

In the sealed glass dock Khodorkovsky, once Russia’s
richest man, waved at his parents, the small courtroom packed with journalists
and cameras.

Several hundred demonstrators could be heard outside the
courtroom, chanting “Freedom!” and “Put Putin [the Russian prime
minister] in jail!”

Police made a number of arrests.

Judge Viktor Danilkin read out the first few pages of the
verdict before asking camera crews to leave the courtroom.

“The court has established that Mikhail Khodorkovsky
and Platon Lebedev committed embezzlement acting in collusion with a group of
people and using their professional positions,” Judge Danilkin said.

Delivering the full verdict and sentence is expected to
take several days.

Khodorkovsky’s lawyers have already said they will
appeal.

In the latest trial, Khodorkovsky and Lebedev are accused
of stealing hundreds of millions of tonnes of oil from the now defunct Yukos
oil company,and laundering the proceeds, in the years 1998-2003.

He has denounced the charges as rubbish.

Khodorkovsky has said that a state that destroys its best
companies and trusts only the bureaucracy and the special services is a sick
state.

Many critics believe the government wants the former
tycoon kept behind bars for as long as possible because he financed the
opposition when Vladimir Putin was president.

Mr Putin – now Russia’s prime minister – referred to
Khodorkovsky in a televised question-and-answer session last week, when he said
he believed “a thief belongs in prison”.

One of Khodorkovsky’s lawyers, Vadim Klyuvgant, has
criticised what he described as “an unjust verdict by a court that is not
free”, describing it as “shameful for the country”.

“If the court were free and independent in issuing
its verdict, it would have issued an acquittal. What we heard here confirms
that the court has faced pressure,” he told reporters.

Former British Foreign Secretary Malcolm Rifkind has
criticised the conduct of the trial in an interview with the BBC.

“I think it is very sad, because it is manifestly a
politically inspired trial.

“Khodorkovsky is in effect Russia’s political prisoner,
and we thought the days of political prisoners in Russia were over with the end
of communism in 1990,” he said.

He added that the verdict also had “serious
implications for the way the business community across the world sees
Russia”.

Germany – which has also raised concerns about the case –
says it is watching developments very closely, but will not comment until the
full verdict has been published.

“Respecting the rule of law in trials is of the
greatest importance for the development of a modern state,” government
spokesman Christoph Steegmans said.

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