- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 31, 2005

MOSCOW (AP) — A court yesterday declared oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky guilty of an array of charges in a trial widely criticized as politically motivated, sentencing him to nine years in prison minus time served.

The declaration of guilt for tax evasion and fraud and the sentence came in the 12th day of the laborious verdict-reading process in the most closely watched trial of post-Soviet Russia.

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 7 years in prison.

Khodorkovsky looked straight ahead as the sentence was read. In a statement later read outside the court by defense attorney Anton Drel, Khodorkovsky said he would not harshly criticize the judge, noting “the pressure she has come under from the initiators of the case when preparing the verdict.”

“Judicial power has been turned into a blunt weapon of the authorities,” he said.

His co-defendant, Platon Lebedev, was found guilty of the same charges and given the same sentence. He said to the judge: “There’s not a sane person who can understand what you have said.” The judge then read his sentence again.

Khodorkovsky and Lebedev also were ordered to pay more than $615 million in taxes and penalties. Additionally, Khodorkovsky must pay $42.5 million in income taxes.

President Bush said yesterday he had voiced concern to his Russian counterpart over the Khodorkovsky case. “I expressed my concerns about the case to President Putin because, as I explained to him, here you are innocent until proven guilty,” Mr. Bush said at a news conference.

“We have expressed our concerns about the system,” Mr. Bush said. “We are watching the ongoing case.”

At the State Department, spokesman Richard Boucher said the broader Yukos case raises questions about Russia’s commitment to the responsibilities that all free-market and democratic countries embrace.

According to Mr. Boucher, the Yukos case and some other developments have already resulted in a dropoff in investment and there have been questions raised among Russians themselves about the climate in the country for investment and business.

But he rejected the idea of cutting U.S. business ties with Russia.

“We don’t think that in any way changing the kind of very positive cooperation we have with Russia is a good idea,” the spokesman said.

Supporters have contended that Khodorkovsky’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, when a successor to Vladimir Putin is to be chosen, and potentially during the 2012 elections as well.

A third defendant in the case, Andrei Krainov, was given a 5-year suspended sentence.

The court did not sentence the men on a charge regarding Apatit, a fertilizer component company. Khodorkovsky and Lebedev were accused of acquiring a large stake by rigging a privatization auction. Although the court considered them guilty, the statue of limitations on the 1994 matter had expired, according to prosecutors.

Khodorkovsky’s lawyers are expected to appeal the guilty verdict and sentence in the 10-day period allotted under Russian law. The prosecutor-general’s office reiterated yesterday that new criminal charges against Khodorkovsky are being prepared.

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 also have been gatherings of Khodorkovsky supporters, who say the proceedings raised substantial doubt about Russia’s commitment to the rule of law.

The verdict “shows that in Russia there is no independent court; in Russia there is only the all-powerful prosecutor-general,” liberal politician Irina Khakamada said.

Demonstrators’ chants of “shame, shame” could be heard even inside the courtroom as the proceedings continued after the sentencing.

Concerns about Russia’s observance of legal propriety and respect for shareholders’ rights 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 yesterday. “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.”

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