MOSCOW – A Russian court sentenced former oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky to nine years in prison on charges of tax evasion and fraud Tuesday, capping an 18-month case that, in the eyes of many, cast the Kremlin as a predatory regime unable or unwilling to guide Russia toward democracy.
Once Russia’s wealthiest man and chief of its largest oil producer, Khodorkovsky stared from the defendants’ metal cage as Judge Irina Kolesnikova handed down the sentence, news agency reporters allowed inside the courtroom said. His wife, Inna, sobbed softly.
Outside the court, an attorney on Khodorkovsky’s defense team read Khodorkovsky’s statement: “Judicial power has finally been turned into a tool for the authorities. Millions of Russians saw today that, despite our leadership’s statements about strengthening justice, there is nothing to hope for yet.”
More than any other event in recent years, the case against Khodorkovsky and Yukos, the giant oil company he oversaw, spoke volumes about the direction Russian President Vladimir Putin has taken his country 14 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Even Russian analysts with Kremlin ties agree that the prosecution of the 41-year-old billionaire was less an exercise in justice than a no-holds-barred takedown of a political threat that the Kremlin deemed too formidable to ignore.
Khodorkovsky had given millions to Kremlin opponents before parliament elections in 2003 and amassed enough clout in parliament to stymie every legislative effort by Putin to claim for the state a larger share of profits from Russia’s oil majors. Rumors began circulating about Khodorkovsky’s interest in running for president in 2008.
Russian authorities fired back with a campaign of audits and searches that led to Khodorkovsky’s arrest at gunpoint on his corporate jet in Siberia in October 2003. He has been jailed since.
Khodorkovsky and his co-defendant, associate Platon Lebedev, were given credit for time served while awaiting trial and will serve about seven years in a prison camp. They also were ordered to pay $615 million in taxes and penalties.
Prosecutors had sought 10-year terms for both men.
Shortly after the verdict and sentence were handed down, Russian authorities announced they plan to pursue a separate, new case against Khodorkovsky focusing on alleged money laundering.
Internationally, the case has created the image of a Russian state driven more by greed and politics than by a desire to establish democracy. Ties between the Kremlin and the Bush administration have grown strained.
In Washington, President Bush criticized Khodorkovsky’s trial. “Here, you’re innocent until proven guilty, and it appeared to us, at least people in my administration, that it looked like he had been adjudged guilty prior to having a fair trial,” Bush said.
Lawyers for Khodorkovsky and Lebedev said they plan to pursue appeals. Under the Russian legal system, both will be eligible for early release by April 2008 – a month after Russia’s next presidential election.