Moscow: A judge on Monday declared Mikhail Khodorkovsky guilty of theft and money laundering charges, a verdict that will likely keep the oil tycoon who was once Russia`s richest man behind bars for several more years.
It was clear from the opening pages of his verdict that the judge has found Khodorkovsky and his business partner Platon Lebedev guilty. Reading the full verdict and announcing the sentence is expected to take several days.
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.
The conviction on charges of stealing all the oil his Yukos company produced between 1998 and 2003 and laundering the proceeds could keep him behind bars until at least 2017.
Vladimir Putin, who was president during Khodorkovsky`s first trial and is now prime minister, has shown no sign of softening his attitude toward the former oligarch. Putin said earlier this month that Khodorkovsky is a proven criminal and "should sit in jail”, a statement denounced by critics as interference in the trial.
Putin has not ruled out a return to the presidency in 2012 and critics suspect him of wanting to keep Khodorkovsky incarcerated until after that election.
Numerous witnesses, including current and former government officials, testified during the 20-month trial that the charges against Khodorkovsky and Lebedev were improbable if not absurd.
Hundreds of Khodorkovsky supporters rallied outside the courthouse Monday, holding up signs saying "Freedom" and "Russia without Putin”. Police detained some of them as they chanted "Freedom”.
In the courtroom, Judge Viktor Danilkin read the verdict in a low voice, drowned out at times by loud chants from outside. Kkhodorkovsky and Lebedev sat impassively in a glass cage. Khodorkovsky`s elderly parents were in the room, his father Boris holding his head in despair.
Khodorkovsky`s arrest in October 2003 and the subsequent state takeover of his Yukos oil company allowed the government to reassert control over the energy sector and tamed other wealthy businessmen, who have obediently followed the Kremlin orders. The Kremlin also consolidated its hold over political life. Soon after Khodorkovsky`s arrest, parties that he had funded were shut out of parliament or sidelined.
Russia`s President Dmitry Medvedev, who despite his title remains Putin`s junior partner, has promised to strengthen the rule of law as part of his mission to modernize Russia and attract more foreign investment. The outcome of the Khodorkovsky trial is seen as a test of whether Medvedev has any real intention — or real power — to deliver on his promises.
Medvedev urged officials on Friday to refrain from commenting on Khodorkovsky`s case before the court rules — a statement seen by some as a tacit rebuke to Putin for his statement this month that the former tycoon deserves no leniency.