MOSCOW – To Russian prosecutors, imprisoned oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky is guilty of more crimes: They say he stole nearly $30 billion in oil from his own company and laundered the proceeds. To others, he is a dissident who stood up to the powerful Vladimir Putin.
Whatever he is, Khodorkovsky, once the country’s richest man, could be spending more time in jail.
Khodorkovsky’s conviction on Monday of stealing from his company, Yukos, demonstrated that little has changed under Putin’s successor, President Dmitry Medvedev, despite his promises to strengthen the rule of law and make courts an independent branch of government.
The verdict showed that Putin, now the prime minister, still holds great power. This month, he said Khodorkovsky was a proven criminal who should sit in prison.
Hundreds of Khodorkovsky supporters rallied outside the courthouse, holding up signs. Police roughly detained some of them as they chanted “Freedom” and “Down with Putin.”
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton led a chorus of political figures in the United States and Europe condemning the verdict.
It “raises serious questions about selective prosecution and about the rule of law being overshadowed by political considerations,” she said.
Khodorkovsky is nearing the end of an eight-year sentence after being convicted of tax fraud in a case seen as punishment for challenging the Kremlin’s economic and political power, in part by funding opposition parties in parliament.
Putin, who was president at the time, has not ruled out a return to the presidency in 2012. He appears unwilling to risk the possibility that a freed Khodorkovsky could help unite and lead his political foes.
Once one of the reviled oligarchs who controlled much of Russia’s economy and dictated their terms to the Kremlin, Khodorkovsky has become a modern-day political dissident and intellectual, a symbol of the struggle for democracy in Putin’s Russia.
His ideas, expressed in testimony, published essays and letters, have won him wide respect.
The conviction on charges of stealing nearly $30 billion worth of the oil that Yukos produced from 1998 to 2003 and laundering the proceeds could keep him behind bars until at least 2017. Prosecutors accused Khodorkovsky and his business partner Platon Lebedev of taking the oil from Yukos’ own production units and selling it abroad at higher prices.
The defense called the charges ridiculous, arguing that prosecutors do not understand the oil business, including the payment of transit fees and export duties.
In the courtroom, Judge Viktor Danilkin read the verdict in a rapid-fire monotone.
The judge rarely raised his eyes as he read for more than seven hours with two short breaks. Khodorkovsky’s lawyers estimated that if Danilkin maintains the current pace, he could finish reading the hundreds of pages remaining in another couple of days. They then plan to appeal.
Boris Nemtsov, who was among a number of opposition leaders who joined the protest rally, said the case has nothing to do with the law or justice.
“Danilkin is the person who will make public the political decision primarily of citizen Putin, who is suffering from an acute form of Khodorkovsky phobia,” Nemtsov said. “He needs to be treated.”