Western governments on Thursday condemned a Russian court’s decision to extend the prison sentence for imprisoned oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky in a ruling widely viewed as flouting the rule of law and evincing Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s political ambitions.
The U.S. State Department, the European Union and Germany’s chancellor, among others, issued stringent criticisms of the court’s action, which a U.S. official said could complicate Russia’s bid to join the World Trade Organization (WTO).
“It is not going to help their cause. It is only going to complicate their cause,” the unidentified U.S. official told Reuters news agency.
“The WTO is a rules-based, rule-of-law organization. Most countries around the world do not look at this verdict as a demonstration of the deepening of the rule of law in Russia. It will definitely have an effect on Russia’s reputation,” the official added.
The Obama administration has supported Russia’s bid to join the WTO, the only international body that deals with rules for trade among nations, and Mr. Putin has said he expects his country to be a part of the body by 2011.
A Moscow judge on Thursday added six years to the prison terms of Khodorkovsky and his business partner, Platon Lebedev, who already were serving eight-year sentences for a 2005 conviction for underpaying billions of dollars in taxes.
Judge Viktor Danilkin sentenced Khodorkovsky and Lebedev following a 20-month trial, in which the two were accused of stealing almost $30 billion worth of the oil produced by their Yukos Oil Co. from 1998 to 2003 and laundering the proceeds.
“You cannot count on the courts to protect you from government officials in Russia,” Khodorkovsky said in a statement that was read aloud by his lead attorney outside the courthouse, according to the Associated Press.
Defense lawyers claimed Mr. Putin was behind the sentence.
In a recent interview, Mr. Putin said he thought Khodorkovsky was a criminal and “should sit in jail.”
Critics condemned the remark as interference in the trial.
Animosity between the oil tycoon and the prime minister goes back to when Khodorkovsky challenged Mr. Putin, who was then serving as Russia’s president. Khodorkovsky funded opposition parties and annoyed Mr. Putin by publicly questioning the Kremlin about corruption.
As Mr. Putin considers a return to the presidency in 2012, many say he would like to keep his foe behind bars.
The State Department criticized the extension of prison time.
“We remain concerned by the allegations of serious due-process violations and what appears to be an abusive use of the legal system for improper ends, particularly now that Khodorkovsky and Lebedev have been sentenced to the maximum penalty,” State Department spokesman Mark Toner said.
“Simply put, the Russian government cannot nurture a modern economy without also developing an independent judiciary that serves as an instrument for furthering economic growth, ensuring equal treatment under the law, and advancing justice in a predictable and fair way,” Mr. Toner said.
In the days before the sentencing, many in Russia said a lenient sentence would keep open the possibility that President Dmitry Medvedev would serve a second term, while a harsh one would prove that Mr. Putin is the force to be reckoned with.
President Obama has tried to build a close relationship with Mr. Medvedev and frequently raised the Khodorkovsky case in phone conversations with the Russian leader.
Mr. Medvedev has promised to strengthen the rule of law and make the courts independent. The court’s ruling severely undercuts that promise.
Earlier this week, as the judge indicated he planned to sentence Khodorkovsky and Lebedev for a second time, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said Russia’s “failure to keep this commitment to universal values, including the rule of law, impedes its own modernization and ability to deepen its ties with the United States.”
Jerzy Buzek, president of the European Parliament in Brussels, described the trial as a “litmus test of how the rule of law and human rights are treated in today’s Russia.”
“In effect, it has become the emblematic symbol of all the systemic problems within the judiciary,” Mr. Buzek said in a statement.
Meanwhile, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said the “impression remains that political motives played a role in these proceedings.”
“This contradicts the intention repeatedly voiced by Russia of pursuing the road to the full rule of law,” Mrs. Merkel added.
Judge Danilkin described Khodorkovsky and Lebedev as a “menace to society” and added that “their rehabilitation is possible only in the confined space of a prison.”
Defense lawyers say they will appeal.
In a statement earlier this week, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said the U.S. will monitor the appeals process.
U.S. officials have been concerned about this case for several years, according to cables released by the website WikiLeaks this week.
A confidential April 2007 cable sent from the U.S. Embassy in Moscow says a source close to Khodorkovsky predicted the oil tycoon “would likely remain in prison as long as the Putin administration is in power.”
Another cable, using an alternate spelling of Khodorkovsky’s name, from December 2009, is headlined “Rule of Law Lipstick on a Political Pig: Khodorkovskiy Case Plods Along.”
“There is a widespread understanding that Khodorkovskiy violated the tacit rules of the game: if you keep out of politics, you can line your pockets as much as you desire,” according to the cable’s author identified only as “Rubin.”
“Most Russians believe the Khodorkovskiy trial is politically motivated; they simply do not care that it is. Human rights activists in general have an uphill battle in overcoming public apathy and cynicism, but nowhere more so than in the Khodorkovskiy case. We will continue to monitor the case as it unfolds,” the cable added.
Both cables were published by the anti-secrecy website WikiLeaks.
A September survey by the Levada Center, a nongovernmental Russian polling organization, found just 13 percent of those polled believed the charges against Khodorkovsky. Twenty-four percent said they did not believe the charges.
The 2009 cable says the fact that legal procedures were followed meticulously in the case shows the effort the Russian government is “willing to expend in order to save face, in this case by applying a superficial rule-of-law gloss to a cynical system where political enemies are eliminated with impunity.”
“It is not lost on either elite or mainstream Russians that the [government of Russia] has applied a double standard to the illegal activities of 1990s oligarchs; if it were otherwise, virtually every other oligarch would be on trial alongside Khodorkovskiy and Lebedev,” it added.
During the trial, Khodorkovsky and Lebedev were locked inside a glass cage and guarded by several armed special-forces officers.
In his statement, read by Vadim Klyuvgant to reporters outside the courthouse, Khodorkovsky expressed some optimism, saying: “But we have not lost hope, and nor should our friends.”
In the courthouse, Khodorkovsky’s mother shouted “Curse you and your children,” apparently at the judge, when the sentence was read. She said it was clear he had come under strong pressure and could not have written the “nonsense that he read today,” AP reported.
“I believe that the judge is quite professional, and not stupid, so he couldn’t write the nonsense that he read today himself. Obviously, he was subjected to pressure, and very strong pressure,” Mrs. Khodorkovsky said.
Speaking outside the courthouse before television cameras, she addressed her remarks to Mr. Medvedev. “Mr. President, a man of the same generation as my son, aren’t you ashamed to be the servant of a conscienceless, immoral man?” she asked.
In his statement earlier this week, Mr. Gibbs said the Obama administration was troubled by “what appears to be an abusive use of the legal system for improper ends.”
“The apparent selective application of the law to these individuals undermines Russia’s reputation as a country committed to deepening the rule of law.”
• Ashish Kumar Sen can be reached at email@example.com.
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