Da The Moscow Times del 01/06/2005
Originale su http://www.themoscowtimes.com/stories/2005/06/01/001.html

9 Years for Khodorkovsky and Lebedev

di Catherine Belton, Lyuba Pronina

The Meshchansky District Court on Tuesday convicted Mikhail Khodorkovsky and his business partner Platon Lebedev of fraud and tax evasion and sentenced them both to nine years in a prison camp, ending the biggest trial in the country's post-Soviet history.

Defense lawyers said they would appeal the verdict, and Khodorkovsky, who was once one of the nation's most powerful men until a growing clash with the Kremlin ended in his arrest, remained defiant and signaled that he thought the fight was far from over. "My sentence has been decided in the Kremlin," he said in a statement read out to reporters by his lawyer Anton Drel after the trial. "I do not consider myself guilty and consider my innocence proven.

"Judicial power in Russia has been turned into a dumb appendage, a blunt instrument of the executive branch of government," he said. "Or not so much of the government, but of a few quasi-criminal economic groups."

As the sentences were finally read out, a group of anti-Khodorkovsky demonstrators outside stood in silence, huddled under umbrellas. Across the street, a group of Khodorkovsky supporters chanted, "Freedom! Freedom!" As soon as the sentences became known, they switched to shouting, "Shame! Shame!"

Khodorkovsky's arrest in October 2003 by gun-toting special forces, the ensuing trial and the partial takeover by the state of Yukos have marked a shift toward greater Kremlin dominance over the economy and politics. President Vladimir Putin's economic adviser Andrei Illarionov, who has often clashed with his boss over the affair, has called it the biggest systemic change to hit the country since August 1991.

But as the Kremlin moved against a businessman who had climbed through the chaos of the Soviet Union's collapse to become the owner of the country's fastest-growing oil company and the country's richest man at the age of 40, the handling of the trial was widely criticized. The case has been widely seen as a Kremlin backlash against Khodorkovsky's mounting political ambitions and threat to Putin's hold on power, and Western leaders have raised questions over the use of selective and arbitrary justice in the trial.

Meanwhile the campaign, which has also included the partial renationalization of his Yukos oil major, could end up only strengthening Khodorkovsky as a political force.

On Tuesday, however, U.S. President George Bush sidestepped the question of whether the conviction was response by Putin to Khodorkovsky's political ambitions, and refrained from direct criticism of the Kremlin.

"It will be interesting to see how Khodorkovsky's expected appeal is handled by the government," Bush said. "Here, you're innocent until proven guilty and it appeared to us -- at least to people in my administration -- that it looked like he had been judged guilty prior to having a fair trial," Bush told reporters Tuesday. "We're watching the ongoing case."

The U.S. administration is on a drive to revive its flagging energy relationship with Russia, which was all but torpedoed after the arrest of Khodorkovsky, who had been the biggest proponent of sending greater supplies of oil to the United States.

Khodorkovsky's conviction is likely to meet a muted reaction across Russia too. Businessmen like him who rose to wealth and power under former President Boris Yeltsin, while the majority of Russians sank into poverty, are still widely reviled.

But some observers have suggested that Khodorkovsky's jailing could turn him into a political force for having suffered at the hands of the regime.

Khodorkovsky appeared to be laying the groundwork for that transformation in his statement. "I don't have significant savings any more," he said. "I've lost my place in the oligarch's club. But I have gained a huge number of true and devoted friends. I have returned a feeling for my country. And now together with my people I will bear this and victory will be ours together."

Saying he would continue the philanthropic works that marked his career in recent years, including aid for prisoners, he said his conviction would lead to suffering for the authorities and not for himself. "I want to say thank you," he said in the statement. "They did not win. Freedom is an internal human condition. It is exactly my ill-wishers ... who are doomed to shake under the stolen assets of Yukos for the rest of their lives."

Another of Khodorkovsky's former business partners in Menatep, Leonid Nevzlin, told reporters on Tuesday that the attack on Yukos and Lebedev signaled the future demise of Putin's regime and accused the president of rigging the trial.

"The verdict is the beginning of the end for Putin," Nevzlin told reporters at a press conference in Tel Aviv, where he is in self-imposed exile. "Now he wants to keep [Khodorkovsky] in jail during the next elections. Anyone who detests democracy, the free press and justice is doomed," he said, The Associated Press reported. Nevzlin has previously said he would support former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov were he to run for president in 2008.

Kasyanov slammed the verdict on Tuesday. "Today we should all admit that we already live in a different country. The unification of democratic forces is no longer a question of political ambitions, it is a vital necessity for the country," he said, Interfax reported.

Yukos managers on Tuesday also upped the ante in response to the sentences against the oil major's former bosses. The company said it had filed an $11.53 billion lawsuit against the government for damages arising from the sale of its main production unit, Yuganskneftegaz, last December. Yugansk was sold at a knockdown price in a controversial auction as payment for $28 billion in back taxes.

Group Menatep, the holding company founded by Khodorkovsky that owns Yukos and other assets, is also suing the government under the terms of the Energy Charter, an international treaty signed by Russia. The threats of legal action have already helped upset Putin's plans to merge state-controlled Gazprom with state-owned Rosneft, the new owner of Yugansk, because of the legal risks.

After the sentences were pronounced, one of the Western lawyers representing Khodorkovsky called for further legal action against the officials behind the takeover of Yukos. "Today another step has been taken to legitimize the expropriation of Yukos," said Robert Amsterdam, a Toronto-based lawyer.

He said the people behind the trial and the verdict were "the same as those who set up a front company in 24 hours, set up a phony auction and stole a company," referring to the mysterious front company Baikal Finance Group that won the Yugansk auction and was soon afterward bought up by Rosneft. "These are the people who should be under investigation," he said.

Amsterdam also warned that Khodorkovsky's jailing would only strengthen his political clout.

"There are very few men who serve time in prison for political reasons whose political ambitions aren't strengthened," he said.

Political analysts said the sentences of nine years were aimed at making sure that Khodorkovsky stayed behind bars until after the 2008 presidential election. "There's no way they could let him out before 2008," said Vladimir Pribylovsky, head of the Panorama think tank. "They made a political figure out of him and now they fear him."

Prosecutors made sure to maintain the pressure Tuesday, announcing again that new money laundering charges against Khodorkovsky and Lebedev would be filed soon. Defense lawyers have said those new charges could carry an additional sentence of up to 10 years if they are found guilty.

If filed, the new charges would keep them in Moscow for as long as a new trial would take. Defense lawyers have suggested that the Kremlin wants to keep the former oil magnates in Moscow so as to keep tighter control over their movements, rather than in the regions where the Kremlin's power could be weaker.

For now, however, they cannot be sent off to a prison colony until the sentence has been passed into law. That cannot happen until the defense's appeal at the next stage, the Moscow city court, has been concluded.

Defense lawyers said Tuesday they had little hope of winning an appeal.

"We of course will dispute [the verdict], although we understand that in the present conditions there cannot be much hope for justice at present," one of the lead defense lawyers told reporters outside the court.

Khodorkovsky and Lebedev have also been fined a total of 17.4 billion rubles ($620 million) in unpaid tax bills, under a civil suit filed by the Federal Tax Service. Chief judge Irina Kolesnikova ruled to levy that amount from the two men. But Lebedev's lawyer Yevgeny Baru said that he was not sure how his clients would pay that bill off. He said they only had "minimal" amounts in their Russian bank accounts.

Khodorkovsky and Lebedev were both convicted of theft with conspiracy; a malicious failure to obey a court order; damage to property rights via fraud with conspiracy; personal tax or national insurance evasion; and appropriation or embezzlement of property with conspiracy.

A charge of repeated forgery of documents was dropped.

The two men were found guilty of the initial charge brought against them, the fraudulent acquisition of a 20 percent stake in the Apatit fertilizer plant in a 1994 privatization. But the court discarded the charge, as a 10-year stature of limitations had already expired.

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