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The riches-to-rags story of former Russian oil tycoon and political dissident Mikhail Khodorkovsky took another turn today, albeit a slight one. The country's highest court ruled Tuesday to give Mr. Khodorkovsky and his business partner Platon Lebedev, who have been in prison since 2005, a two-month reduction in their sentences.
The one-time business heavyweight became a poster child of dissent against Russian President Vladimir Putin after he was convicted in 2005 of fraud and tax evasion, and then again in 2010 of embezzlement and money laundering, in what many believe were politically motivated show trials.
According to the BBC, Russia’s supreme court ruled against an appeal for the immediate release of Khodorkovsky and Mr. Lededev Tuesday. However, the court did trim their sentences by two months, meaning that Khodorkovsky could walk free by August 2014.
In the early 2000s, Khodorkovsky was the richest man in Russia, having made billions as the head of Yukos, one of Russia’s largest oil companies, during the period of rapid privatization that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union. One of the infamous Oligarchs – former Soviet apparatchiks who gained control of Russia’s resources by surreptitious means and at one point controlled 70 percent of its economy – he was reviled at the time of his arrest in 2003.
After his first conviction in 2005, international legal experts and human rights groups widely criticized the Kremlin for what was seen as political persecution of a potentially threatening political rival, reports the Wall Street Journal. As their first sentence drew to an end, another controversial series of charges were laid against Khodorkovsky and Lebedev in 2010, extending their sentence to 2016.
But in December 2012, a Moscow city court reduced their sentences by two years, reports RIA Novosti. And the newly trimmed 11-year sentence was further reduced today.
Mr. Putin’s Kremlin has an ignominious history of persecuting political dissidents through selective and potentially prejudicial application of the law. Beginning when he took office, Putin reduced the power of the Oligarchs by seizing their assets, imprisoning them, or forcing them to flee the country.
More recently, one of Russia’s leading economists, Sergi Guriev, fled the country in May out of fear of retribution for his anti-Kremlin political beliefs. And in July, anti-corruption campaigner and would-be political candidate Alexi Navalny was convicted of embezzlement in a trial that scandalized the Russian opposition, writes The Christian Science Monitor.
But while many believe that Khodorkovsky is a prime example of the political witch hunts that have come to characterize Putin’s rule, the Russian president was vindicated last month by a European Court of Human Rights decision that proclaimed the former tycoon’s first trial was not politically motivated, according to another Monitor report.
"The Court admits that the applicant’s case may raise a certain suspicion as to the real intent of the authorities," the ruling said. But "claims of political motivation behind prosecution require incontestable proof, which has not been presented," it added.
Still, with another year left on his sentence, supporters of Khodorkovsky and Lebedev are worried that the Kremlin may strike again, reports Agence France Press.
However some activists have expressed fear that new charges could yet be brought against Khodorkovsky as the Kremlin considers him such a dangerous potential opponent.…
Putin, who has never made a secret of his dislike of Khodorkovsky, said even before the verdict in the second trial was announced that "a thief should be in prison," drawing criticism that he was interfering in the process.