Moscow: To Russian prosecutors, imprisoned oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky is guilty of more crimes: They say he stole nearly $30 billion in oil from his own company and laundered the proceeds. To others, he is a dissident who stood up to the powerful Vladimir Putin.
Whatever he is, Khodorkovsky, once the country`s richest man, could be spending more time in jail. And many here point to one man: Putin.
Khodorkovsky`s conviction on Monday of stealing from his company, Yukos, demonstrated that little has changed under Putin`s successor, President Dmitry Medvedev, despite his promises to strengthen the rule of law and make courts an independent branch of government.
The verdict showed that Putin, now the prime minister, still holds great power. This month, he said, Khodorkovsky was a proven criminal who should sit in prison.
Hundreds of Khodorkovsky supporters rallied outside the courthouse, holding up signs saying "Freedom" and "Russia without Putin." Police roughly detained some of them as they chanted "Freedom" and "Down with Putin."
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton led a chorus of political figures in the United States and Europe in condemning the verdict.
It "raises serious questions about selective prosecution and about the rule of law being overshadowed by political considerations," she said.
Khodorkovsky is nearing the end of an eight-year sentence after being convicted of tax fraud in a case seen as punishment for challenging the Kremlin`s economic and political power, in part by funding opposition parties in Parliament.
Putin, who was president at the time and is seen as the driving force behind the latest trial, has not ruled out a return to the presidency in 2012. He appears unwilling to risk the possibility that a freed Khodorkovsky could help unite and lead his political foes.
Being such an opposition leader would be a remarkable transformation for Khodorkovsky.
Once one of the reviled oligarchs who controlled much of Russia`s economy and dictated their terms to the Kremlin, he has become a modern day political dissident and intellectual, a symbol of the struggle for democracy in Putin`s Russia.
Like millions of political prisoners under Soviet dictator Josef Stalin, he spent time in a Siberian prison camp, where he was assigned to a workshop sewing shapeless gloves. Much of the past two years, he has been shuttling back and forth in handcuffs from a Moscow jail to the stuffy courtroom he sat in on Monday.
His demeanor in court, however, and his ideas, expressed not only in testimony but in published essays and letters, have won him wide respect.