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Kremlin Critics Claim Khodorkovsky Sentence Politically Motivated

Mikhail Khodorkovsky, center, and his co-defendant Platon Lebedev, right, are escorted to a court room in Moscow, 27 Dec 2010
Mikhail Khodorkovsky, center, and his co-defendant Platon Lebedev, right, are escorted to a court room in Moscow, 27 Dec 2010

The verdict handed down Thursday that will see Mikhail Khodorkovsky jailed for six more years has been met with a wave of criticism from their defense team and prominent human rights activists in Russia.

A Moscow court has sentenced jailed former oil oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky to another six years in prison with a release date in 2017 in a trial seen as a major barometer of Russia's authoritarian government.

Khodorkovsky's supporters say the accusations against him are absurd. They say he was arrested because he posed a political threat to then-President Vladimir Putin by funding opposition parties and using his huge influence to lobby against state control over the oil industry. Critics also believe Khodokovsky was charged as an excuse to keep him in jail through the next presidential election in 2012, in which many believe Mr. Putin wants to run.

Khodorkovsky was convicted of stealing billions of dollars' worth of oil and laundering the proceeds.

Sandy Saunders, a member of Khodorkovsky's U.S. legal team, said that he is not surprised by the verdict. "The Russian criminal justice system will be used by the powers to get what they want. And the constitution, Russian law, is going to be set aside for personal gain," he said.

'Personal opponent'

In a televised question and answer session in early December, Mr. Putin claimed that a "thief belongs in jail" when asked about Khodorkovsky, despite the fact that the verdict of the case was not yet announced.

Gleb Pavlovsky, the president of the Foundation for Effective Policy says that this was a political mistake for Mr. Putin for which he was later reprimanded by President Dmitry Medvedev.

He says Prime Minister Putin thinks of Khodorkovsky as his own personal opponent and is so involved with this idea that he forgets that he is not an official in this case. And this of course is influential.

Abuse of legal system

But Lilia Shevtsova of the Moscow Carnegie Center says that this case also demonstrated who is in charge of the country. "This guilty verdict also proved that Mr. Medvedev is simply a puppet on the string. That he is Mr. Nobody. Or at least he is Mr. Putin's shadow. And all this cause, all this talk of liberalization and modernization of Russia is simply a joke," said Shevtsova.

The Khodorkovsky trial has been at the center of the Western media's attention this week. And European and American politicians have voiced their concern over the verdict including a statement by U.S. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton who called it an abusive use of the legal system.

But the Khodorkovsky trial has little resonance in Russia. A recent poll by the Moscow based Levada Center found that 65 percent of Russians have not been following the trial. Victor Linnik, Editor-in-Chief of Slovo Magazine says that there is also little support for Khodorkovsky in the country.

"Is this sentence deserved by Khodorkovsky or not? 99 percent of the Russian public would tell you it is deserved. He was one of the leading figures in the criminal privatization of the nineties," he said.

But Shevtsova says that the importance of the verdict and the sentence is to demonstrate Mr. Putin's political strength to the ruling and liberal elites.