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Analysis & Opinion
27.12.10 Triumphant Justice, Take Two
By Tom Balmforth

The drawn-out second trial of former oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky and his business partner Platon Lebedev – seen as a gauge of President Dmitry Medvedev’s commitment to the rule of law – reached its anticipated conclusion on Monday afternoon, while the West enjoyed Christmas. Today’s guilty verdict means that Khodorkovsky and Lebedev could remain in jail until 2017.

Khodorkovsky was found guilty of embezzling money from his carved up oil behemoth Yukos and then of laundering the proceeds. Judge Viktor Danilkin is expected to be reading out the final verdict all the way until New Year, while the jail-term in this 22-month-long trial should be announced in mid-January.

Khodorkovsky and his team have consistently called the charges political, designed to rein in a potentially powerful challenger to the current regime. “The trial was a charade of justice, the charges were absolutely false, but I fear the sentencing will be very real,” said Khodorkovsky’s lead defense lawyer Vadim Klyuvgant. Prosecutors have asked for a sentence of 14 years, which will keep Khodorkovsky and Lebedev behind bars until 2017.

Some Muscovites gathered in front of the Khamovnichesky Court this morning in a small protest, chanting “Freedom!” and for “Putin to be jailed!” Several arrests were made, the BBC Russian service reported. The Khodorkovsky PR team also claimed that their Russian language Web site was hit by a denial-of-service (DDoS) attack, although it is now back online.

Once Russia’s richest man, 47-year-old Khodorkovsky became the country’s most high-profile prisoner after he (along with several other so-called “oligarchs”) crossed a rising then-President Vladimir Putin. In 2003 Khodorkovsky was arrested in Siberia on an airport landing strip at gunpoint and has been in jail ever since, serving an eight-year-long sentence for tax evasion from his 2005 trial. The former Yukos head has been in jail for 2,618 days and would have been released 302 days from now, only months before the 2012 presidential elections.

Russia’s fragmented opposition, for whom Khodorkovsky has become a symbol of repression, has tried to cash in on the verdict. “Nightmarish news,” said Boris Nemtsov, a leader of the Solidarity movement. “Today is a fateful day. The conviction means trampled laws, rights and Constitution.”

But this second case is more important for Russia's ties abroad. Would-be partners of Medvedev’s modernization bid (supposedly a foreign policy priority, too), have awaited the verdict for signs of improvement to the rule of law and Russia’s business climate. The verdict – due a fortnight ago – was postponed without explanation until December 27, when the West is still slumped by the fireplace recovering from Christmas celebrations.

The reception so far has been cold. “I am dismayed by reports that Mikhail Khodorkovsky has been found guilty of further charges of embezzlement. By all accounts the rule of law in the conduct of this trial has been abandoned. This has serious implications for the confidence of overseas investors and for British investment in Russia,” Richard Ottaway, a Conservative member of parliament and chairman of the UK Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Select Committee was quoted by the Khodorkovsky PR team as saying.

Rights activists are up-in-arms too. “The Russian authorities’ consistent disregard for due process in this trial only strengthens the impression that this second round of convictions has been politically motivated,” said Nicola Duckworth, Amnesty International’s director for Europe and Central Asia. “All evidence points to a pattern of political motives and interference having obstructed justice in this case. The Moscow City Court must overturn this unfair conviction, to restore faith in the independence of Russia’s legal system” said Duckworth.

In his question-and-answer session last week, Vladimir Putin said of Khodorkovsky, who made his fortune in the Russia’s wild 1990s: "A thief should sit in prison.” In a letter to Nezavisimaya Gazeta last week, the moonfaced former oil tycoon said he was dismayed and moved by pity during Vladimir Putin’s televised call-in session. “It is evident – he is incapable of tearing himself away from the already unmanageable ‘oar’ of the monstrous ‘galley’ he himself has built. A galley that apathetically sails right over people’s destinies. A galley over which, more and more, the citizens of Russia seem to see a black pirate flag flying,” Khodorkovsky wrote.

But it is Medvedev who emerges the most scathed from the verdict. "I am deeply disgusted with the guilty verdict. The verdict does not shine a good light on the conditions in Russia. It shows that president Medvedev's rule of law rhetoric is actually just rhetoric,” Markus Loning, human rights commissioner to the German government, told Khodorkovsky’s PR team.

The ascendancy of Putin’s line during Medvedev’s rule will give a new lease of life to debates among those who subscribe to real political competition between the two leaders peddling Russia’s tandem. But various analysts are dismissing a Medvedev second term. Alexander Mukhin, the head of the Moscow-based Center for Political Technologies, said that neither Putin nor Medvedev will be in the Kremlin after 2012. Instead, Mukhin points to Head of the Kremlin Administration Sergei Naryshkin, First Deputy Prime Mininster Igor Shuvalov, and Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin. All Putin’s men.

A cable from the U.S. Embassy in Moscow earlier this year stated the widely assumed truth of the 2012 elections, that whoever does end up on the presidential throne, the road to that position is through Putin. Yesterday the UK’s Guardian daily published another cable based on a discussion between U.S. Ambassador to Moscow William Burns and an undisclosed second party, saying that Khodorkovsky will not be freed while Putin is in power.

Burns wrote: “In his final remarks, XXXX claimed that the new charges against Khodorkovsky are politically motivated and said that the case is being orchestrated entirely by the Kremlin. Although he stated confidently that the charges are without legal or evidentiary support, he concluded by saying that Khodorkovsky would likely remain in prison as long as the Putin Administration is in power.”
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