MOSCOW – A former tycoon who challenged the rule of Russian leader Vladimir Putin was sentenced to remain in prison until at least 2017 after his conviction this week for embezzlement and money laundering in a politically charged case widely condemned in the West.
Judge Viktor Danilkin sentenced Mikhail Khodorkovsky to 14 years in prison to be served concurrently with a previous eight-year term that he was soon to complete. It was not immediately clear when he would gain his freedom: the judge implied that the new term would keep Khodorkovsky behind bars until 2020, while the defense said the term would be calculated to start with his arrest in 2003.
Khodorkovsky’s business partner, Platon Lebedev, also received a 14-year sentence.
Khodorkovsky didn’t say anything in court; he just smiled behind a bulletproof glass cage. But his elderly mother, Marina, shouted to the judge: “You be damned, and your ancestors too.”
Lebedev and Khodorkovsky were convicted of embezzling the equivalent of $27 billion worth of oil from the now-defunct Yukos company. The verdict found that they had “created an illusion of a market mechanism to set oil purchase prices to hide the illegal documentation of the unfair deals and eventually to steal the oil.”
Khodorkovsky, at one time Russia’s wealthiest oligarch, had helped fund political parties that sought a Western-style democracy in the wake of the Soviet Union’s collapse. His activism put him in direct conflict with Putin, who served as president from 2000 to 2008 before becoming prime minister. The former tycoon was convicted in 2005 on charges of tax evasion and fraud and had been scheduled to be released next year.
The current case was widely condemned in the West as an abuse of the court system for political purposes that called into question Russia’s reliability as a political and trading partner.
The U.S. State Department was quick to criticize the sentences handed down Thursday.
“We remain concerned by the allegations of serious due-process violations, and what appears to be an abusive use of the legal system for improper ends, particularly now that Khodorkovsky and Lebedev have been sentenced to the maximum penalty,” State Department spokesman Mark Toner said.