Jailed oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, in the midst of petitioning Russian authorities for parole, suffered a setback this week when the European Court of Human Rights declined to rule that the case that sent him to prison on charges of fraud and tax evasion was orchestrated by the Kremlin.
The court's decision Tuesday also concluded that Mr. Khodorkovsky's arrest almost eight years ago on a Siberian airstrip was illegal, and that he was subsequently held in "inhumane and degrading" conditions, and awarded him $35,000 in damages from the Russian government.
But the claim that Khodorkovsky's prosecution on criminal charges was a thinly veiled effort by the Kremlin to dispense with a political threat – the central point for Khodorkovsky's defenders – was not upheld.
"The Court admits that the applicant’s case may raise a certain suspicion as to the real intent of the authorities," the Court ruling said. But "claims of political motivation behind prosecution require incontestable proof, which has not been presented," it added.
Russian authorities hailed that decision Wednesday as vindication of their longstanding argument that Khodorkovsky – who acquired his oil empire Yukos through shady privatizations with the aid of Kremlin cronies in the 1990s – is just an ordinary white-collar criminal who donned the mantle of a political prisoner to win sympathy in the West.
"The Yukos case has been surrounded by too much hysteria and groundless, incompetent claims regarding Russia's legal system," Justice Minister Alexander Konovalov told Russian news media. "Lawyers should do their job calmly and objectively, and this is what the European court has demonstrated. . . This should certainly reduce the unscrupulous and incompetent polemics" about the Khodorkovsky case in the Western media, he added.
Disappointed friends of Khodorkovsky say it was always going to be difficult to document the Kremlin hand behind the long-running prosecutions of the former oil tycoon, and insist that the European court's ruling changes nothing.
Khodorkovsky, whose 14-year sentence was upheld by a Moscow appeals court last week, is widely regarded as a victim of selective justice.
Singled out among the oligarchs
Supporters say Khodorkovsky was singled out for prosecution from among many successful 1990's "oligarchs," whose wealth had similarly dubious origins, because of his refusal to stop supporting opposition politicians and civil society groups when ordered to do so after Vladimir Putin came to power more than a decade ago. They point out that the European Court's decision only covered his first trial and that further hearings will deal with his even more controversial second trial, which ended in conviction and an additional six-year prison sentence last December.
Following his lost appeal last week, international human rights watchdog Amnesty International finally declared Khodorkovsky and his co-defendant Platon Lebedev to be "prisoners of conscience," and State Department spokesman Mark Toner told journalists that "the denial of Khodorkovsky and Lebedev's appeals, upholding long prison terms, affirms our concerns about serious due process violations and the use of the legal system for improper ends."
Khodorkovsky's lawyer, Yuri Shmidt, says that three further cases pending before the European Human Rights Court will be able to present more evidence of official meddling in the case, including the testimony of a senior court worker who alleged that the tycoon's second trial was orchestrated "from above."
Mr. Shmidt says that under Russian law his client has fulfilled all the requirements for being granted parole, including serving more than half his sentence with no bad behavior on his record. A previous motion for parole in 2008 was denied by a judge who cited the defendant's refusal to sign up for prison sewing classes, and other alleged misbehavior, including failure to keep his hands behind his back during a prison walk.
"All conditions [for parole] have been fulfilled, and we hope that there will be no formal pretexts for refusal, as there were before. Whether or not he will be released depends on one person, and you know his name," Shmidt says, referring to the powerful prime minister, Mr. Putin.
"In fact, his would be a good opportunity for the authorities to show they do not intervene in legal processes," by allowing Khodorkovsky to be granted parole, he adds.
Masha Lipman, editor of the Moscow Carnegie Center's Pro et Contra journal, says there have been a number of mixed signals from Russia's political summit about Khodorkovsky in recent weeks, which may stem from the uncertainty over who will be Russia's next president, Putin or the more liberal incumbent, Dmitry Medvedev.
The unusual signs, which have raised hopes among Khodorkovsky supporters, include a comment by Mr. Medvedev, who said during a lengthy press conference last month that releasing Khodorkovsky would present "no threat" to Russian society. Last week, a state-run TV network, NTV, ran an unusually detailed and balanced report about Khodorkovsky's motion for parole, including arguments supporting his case.
"This is a confusing and uncertain time in Russia," says Ms. Lipman. "Until Putin says he's coming back, there seems to be a chance that he won't. That gives rise to hope that maybe we'll have a different future, a more liberal Russia. You see the effects of this uncertainty everywhere, in all sorts of tensions, frictions, leakages and these mixed signals about what might happen to Khodorkovsky are part of that."