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Russian Businessman Found Guilty of Fraud, Tax Evasion


A Moscow court is expected to find the former director of Yukos Oil company guilty of charges including fraud and tax evasion.

The judge in the trial of Mikhail Khodorkovsky began summing up the case, but the court adjourned until Tuesday before the verdict was read. The businessman could receive up to 10 years in prison in a trial that critics say has called into question Russia's commitment to the rule of law and democracy.

The charges stem from what the court found was the illegal way they used various schemes to amass a huge amount of money with which the 41-year-old former director got control of Yukos, once Russia's largest oil company.

Mr. Khodorkovsky is one of several "oligarchs" who became billionaires overnight in the chaotic years in the mid-1990s after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Part of his defense was to argue that nothing he or his colleagues did was illegal at the time. Many of the other oligarchs now live in exile outside Russia.

But the trial has been highly politicized since Mr. Khodorkovsky was arrested at gunpoint a year and a half ago.

Most analysts say he angered the Kremlin when he openly funded opposition political parties and sought foreign investment to build a private oil pipeline, something that has always been controlled by the state.

John Poppalardo is one of the lawyers defending Khodorkovsky. He says the trial was a legal sham orchestrated by the government.

"The law is used as an instrumentality to achieve political and, in this case, economic ends," Mr. Poppalardo said.

Kremlin officials insist that the long, drawn-out Yukos affair is strictly a matter of cracking down on fraud and corruption.

But Yukos officials say the government made it impossible for the company to repay a back tax bill of $27 billion because all of its liquid assets were frozen.

Then, last December, Yukos was effectively dismembered when the government auctioned off its primary pumping unit in order to settle those tax claims. The auction was conducted in such a way that it was unclear who had acquired the Yugankneftgaz subsidiary, although a few days later it was clear another company with Kremlin links had taken control of it.

Many believe the government intended to seize Mr. Khodorkovsky's assets all along, as a way for the state to reassert control over Russia's vast energy resources.

The Yukos case has soured the foreign investment climate in Russia and had an impact on the country's stock market.

An appeal is likely to be filed. But in a bizarre twist, last week prosecutors announced that new charges of money-laundering would be brought against Khodorkovsky as well, no matter what the outcome of the current case.

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