Khodorkovsky case: Russia slams West

Russia accused West of trying to influence the trial of Khodorkovsky.

Last Updated: Dec 28, 2010, 19:00 PM IST

Moscow: Russia accused the United States and European nations on Tuesday of trying to influence the trial of jailed tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, calling such efforts unacceptable and warning the West to mind its own business.

In a statement, the Foreign Ministry also rejected as groundless Western officials` suggestions that the trial of Khodorkovsky, who was found guilty on Monday of large-scale theft and money laundering, was an example of selective justice.

The United States and European nations said the verdict raised doubts about the Kremlin`s commitment to the rule of law and human rights, and warned they were closely watching the case.

Referring to comments from Washington and European Union capitals about the trial, the ministry said: "We would like to once again underscore that this issue relates to the competence of the court system of the Russian Federation."

"Attempts to apply pressure on the court are unacceptable," it said in a statement. "We are counting on everyone to mind his own business -- both at home and in the international arena."

A judge edged on Tuesday toward sentencing Khodorkovsky, who has been in jail since 2003, plowing through reading out a 250-page guilty verdict which has renewed doubts on the rule of law in Russia.

Judge Viktor Danilkin is expected to hand down the sentence on Khodorkovsky, once Russia`s richest man, after he has finished reading out the verdict sometime later this week.

The judge found Khodorkovsky guilty of money laundering and a multibillion-dollar oil theft on Monday, a verdict that his lawyers and Western governments said smacked of political meddling in the judicial system. Khodorkovsky`s defense team has alleged government pressure on the judge and vowed an appeal.

Prosecutors are seeking an additional six-year prison term for Khodorkovsky, the former Yukos oil company CEO who is 10 months from the end of an eight-year sentence imposed after a previous trial during Vladimir Putin`s 2000-2008 presidency.

One of the young tycoons who built fortunes after the Soviet Union`s 1991 collapse, Khodorkovsky fell out with Putin`s Kremlin after airing corruption allegations, challenging state control over oil exports and funding opposition parties.

Putin is now prime minister but remains Russia`s most powerful man. His successor, Dmitry Medvedev, has made freeing Russia`s courts of political influence and corruption, along modernizing the economy, two of the top goals on his presidency.

Police blocked the streets within 100 meters of Moscow`s Khamovnichesky court on Tuesday, a day after hundreds of protestors gathered outside, calling for Khodorkovsky`s release and shouting "Shame!." Police detained about 30 demonstrators.

A harsh sentence in Khodorkovsky`s second trial would draw further criticism of Medvedev, the protege Putin steered into the presidency in 2008 when he ran up against a constitutional limit of two straight Kremlin terms.

Medvedev has courted U.S. and EU support for modernization, putting on a more pleasant face than Putin often showed in his presidency and traveling as far as California`s Silicon Valley in search of ideas for innovation.

Reacting to a verdict she said "raises serious questions about ... the rule of law being overshadowed by political considerations," U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stressed independent courts are a necessary for modernization.

"We welcome President Medvedev`s modernization plans, but their fulfillment requires the development of a climate where due process and judicial independence are respected," Clinton said on Monday.

German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said he was "very worried" about the guilty verdict. "The circumstances of the proceedings are highly alarming and a step backward for the country on its road toward modernization."

Medvdev is struggling to show significant results on his reform initiatives as a 2012 presidential election approaches.

Putin, the dominant figure in Russia`s ruling tandem, has said he and Medvedev will decide together on a Kremlin candidate for the vote, but many Russians believe Putin will ultimately make the choice.

The two leaders set conflicting tones in the days before the verdict`s delivery, with Putin telling the nation that Khodorkovsky had blood on his hands and Medvdev stressing that no official should comment in advance of the verdict.

After his 2003 arrest, Yukos was bankrupted by back-tax claims and its top assets sold off into state hands, deepening Western concerns about property rights and the rule of law.

In the second trial, prosecutors said Khodorkovsky stole $27 billion in oil from Yukos subsidiaries through pricing schemes and laundered some of the money, charges his lawyers dismissed as an absurd pretext to keep him behind bars.

Bureau Report