Russian tycoon sentenced to 9 years

Case widely criticized as move to grab assets, silence political dissent

The World

June 01, 2005|By Douglas Birch | Douglas Birch,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MOSCOW - A Russian court convicted Mikhail B. Khodorkovsky, the founder of Yukos Oil and once the country's richest man, on fraud and tax evasion charges yesterday, in a case that has defined the limits of the Kremlin's commitment to free markets and political pluralism.

A three-judge panel in Moscow's Meschansky Court sentenced Khodorkovsky and his business partner, Platon Lebedev, to nine years in prison. The sentences were one year shorter than prosecutors sought.

The court also levied fines and back taxes totaling $62 million against Khodorkovsky and $15 million against Lebedev. A third defendant, Andrei Krainov, who aided prosecutors, received 5 1/2 years of probation.

After winding up the case yesterday, Chief Judge Irina Kolesnikova asked the defendants whether they understood the court's decision.

"This is incomprehensible; no one in his right mind can understand it," Lebedev said.

Sarcastic reply

Khodorkovsky stared straight ahead as the sentence was read. "I consider my sentence comprehensible, I consider it to be a monument to Basmanny justice," he said sarcastically, referring to Moscow's Basmanny Courthouse, notorious for rulings that please the Kremlin.

Khodorkovsky has accused the state of using his trial, coupled with $28.5 billion in back tax claims against his oil company, as an excuse by bureaucrats to seize Yukos' lucrative assets. As a result of those tax claims, Yukos' main production unit is now owned by the state-controlled Rosneft oil company.

Many Russians believe that the trial reflected the Kremlin's desire to punish Khodorkovsky for underwriting opposition political parties and seeking political power. Khodorkovsky has denied having any personal political ambitions.

After the sentence was read, about 100 Khodorkovsky supporters outside the courtroom started whistling, ringing bells, waving flags and chanting "Shame! Shame!" Across the street, anti-Khodorkovsky protesters looked on quietly, as they have for the past two weeks.

Natalia Vishnyakova, a spokesman for the Russian Prosecutor General's Office, told the Interfax news agency that the verdict was "fair and objective."

"It matches the actual circumstances of the case and the gravity of crimes committed by the defendants," she said.

Sergei Mironov, the speaker of the Federation Council, or upper chamber of parliament, and a staunch ally of President Vladimir V. Putin, said he was not surprised by the verdicts or the sentences.

"I would not have understood it if the court had acquitted Khodorkovsky," he told a news conference. "Then I would have become doubtful about the Prosecutor General's Office."

Prosecutors charged that Khodorkovsky and Lebedev engaged in a criminal conspiracy to bilk the state of $1 billion worth of assets - in the purchase at auction, for example, of a state pesticide research institute and a fertilizer plant - and then dodged taxes on them.

Lawyers for the defendants argued that their clients never violated Russia's lax laws governing the auctions in the 1990s, where they bought state-owned properties for a fraction of their value. And defense lawyers said their clients' tax avoidance schemes were perfectly legal.

Krainov was accused of running a shell corporation that conducted illegal transactions for Khodorkovsky's Group Menatep holding company.

Counting time served, yesterday's sentence would require Khodorkovsky to serve 7 1/2 more years in prison. But the prosecutor general said all three defendants could face additional charges.

Arrested in 2003

Khodorkovsky has been jailed since October 2003, when masked special forces surrounded his executive jet at a Siberian airport and arrested him. Lebedev had been arrested two months earlier. Both men, billionaires at the time, were denied bail.

A one-time Communist Youth leader, Khodorkovsky has become the unlikely rallying point for Russia's splintered and discouraged democratic opposition. Never before have alleged political prisoners in Russia had their faces printed on T-shirts or employed an army of public relations people.

Ordinary Russians, many of whom saw their life savings wiped out amid the economic turmoil of the 1990s, generally applauded the arrest of Khodorkovsky and his associates. But for others, especially among Russia's educated middle class, Khodorkovsky was a martyr to the Kremlin's increasing monopolization of political power, a victim of its clumsy attempts to stifle opposition.

"The Khodorkovsky case has become something other than the trial of an out-of-favor oligarch," wrote Vyacheslav Kostikov, a political analyst, in the newspaper Argumenty I Fakty. "Essentially, it has become a mirror of our incoherent state and ineffective regime."

Liberal political leader Irina Khakamada, who was trounced by Putin in last year's presidential contest, said the trial vividly demonstrated Russia's lack of an independent judiciary.

"In Russia there is no independent court," she told Interfax. "In Russia there is only the all-powerful prosecutor-general."

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