Already-imprisoned Russian oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, a businessman who has long been at odds with Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, was sentenced to another six years in prison on Thursday.
Mr. Khodorovsky was found guilty earlier this week of embezzling $27 billion from Yukos, the oil company he built with his business partner, Platon Lebedev. The two have already spent seven years in jail after receiving an eight-year sentence on charges of tax evasion and fraud. With the new sentence, they will spend 14 years total in jail.
The trial and sentencing have been widely criticized for being driven by politics rather than a desire for justice – not because Khodorkovsky is not guilty, but because he and his partner are not the only prominent Russian businessmen who have a history of suspected shady financial dealings. International response has been strong and condemning, the Monitor reported.
The politically-tinged case against the men has drawn international ire, perhaps nowhere more so than from the US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, [who] issued a statement yesterday saying the latest conviction brings up "serious questions about selective prosecution – and about the rule of law being overshadowed by political considerations." Germany called the conviction a setback for Russian democracy.
The case against Khodorovsky was only initiated when he began using his wealth from Yukos, a company he paid the government $350 million for, to support pro-democracy groups and candidates not approved by Putin, who was president when he ordered the prosecution. “His legal travails have long been taken as a pointed object lesson for other Russian businessmen,” the Monitor reported.
A WikiLeaks cable released late Wednesday supports this perception. The cable, which dates to December 2009 and was sent from the US Embassy in Moscow, is titled “Rule of Law Lipstick on a Political Pig: Khodorkovsky Case Plods Along,” the Moscow Times reported.
"There is a widespread understanding that Khodorkovsky violated the tacit rules of the game: If you keep out of politics, you can line your pockets as much as you desire,” said the cable, which was signed with the surname Rubin. “Most Russians believe the Khodorkovsky trial is politically motivated; they simply do not care that it is.”
It said that in the country where “political enemies are eliminated with impunity” the current political system gave “a rule-of-law gloss” to the trial allowing Khodorkovsky's defense to explain their arguments.
The Moscow Times also reported that independent lawyers have said that the case could be considered double jeopardy, because Khodorkovsky is being tried twice for the same crime, and that the embezzlement charges are false.
"It can't be called embezzlement if both sides agree to a deal in which one buys from the other company at its production cost," said Pavel Smyslov, a lawyer specializing in corporate policy, who is not involved in the Yukos trial.
Such a deal is illegal, but it involves tax evasion, not stealing, Smyslov said.
The case has also been receiving attention because of its implications for the future of Russian leadership, as Medvedev and Putin are vying to be considered the establishment candidate in 2012 presidential elections. Khodorkovsky’s trial and sentencing are seen as a blow to Medvedev, who promised to fight a “war on corruption,” making it easier for businesses to invest and expand, the Monitor reported.
A running theory in Moscow was that Medvedev, eager to show that the rule of law prevails in Russia, was uncomfortable with the second prosecution of Mr. Khodorkovsky, whose legal troubles began in 2003 when he openly challenged then-President Putin's increasingly authoritarian rule.
Ahead of the verdict, Russia analysts argued that an acquittal would show that Medvedev had prevailed, while a conviction would show that Mr. Putin – who already served two terms as president, from 2000-08 – remains Russia's real power and is likely to return to the presidency in 2012.