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Former Khodorkovsky partner gets life sentence

Latest update : 2008-08-01

Leonid Nevzlin, a former associate of Yukos tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, has been sentenced to life in prison for ordering the murder of four people. According to his lawyer he will appeal the ruling.

A Russian court on Friday sentenced in absentia a former partner of Yukos oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky to life in prison for ordering four contract killings, drawing condemnation from the defence.

Giving a gruesome account of the "Wild East" capitalism Russia experienced in the 1990s, the judge, Valery Novikov, said Leonid Nevzlin had organised four murders of business rivals and officials in his time at Yukos.

Nevzlin, a former Yukos deputy chairman now based in Israel and has Israeli citizenship, "has been sentenced to life in a high-security prison," a spokeswoman for the Moscow City Court told AFP after the verdict was read out.

Nevzlin was absent but a representative of the prosecutor's office at the hearing told Russian news agencies that he could serve his sentence in Israel under an agreement between Israel and Russia.

The verdict detailed murders and attempted murders, saying that shootings and bomb attacks had been paid for by Nevzlin and Alexei Pichugin, the jailed former head of security at Yukos, once Russia's biggest oil producer.

"We will appeal. This sentence is groundless. This trial has been unfair from the very beginning. His rights have been abused. My client has always said this trial is politically motivated," said Nevzlin's lawyer, Dmitry Kharitonov.

The trial comes just days before a court in Siberia is to hold a parole hearing for Khodorkovsky, who is serving an eight-year jail term in eastern Russia for financial crimes involving his now defunct Yukos oil empire.

Nevzlin fled to Israel in 2003 when the Yukos investigations began. Russian prosecutors have since also said he may have ordered the killing of former KGB agent Alexander Litvinenko, who was poisoned in London in 2006.

Nevzlin was listed by Forbes in 2004 as having a net worth of more than two billion dollars (1.3 billion euros). He has engaged in philanthropic activities since moving to Israel, funding several major education projects.

Speaking outside the courtroom, Farida Islamova, widow of one of the murder victims named at the trial, the mayor of a Siberian oil town, said: "I am fully satisfied with the verdict. My husband was killed for doing his job."

Islamova's husband, the mayor of Nefteyugansk, Vladimir Petukhov, was gunned down in 1998. His widow alleged that Khodorkovsky had threatened him a month before his death and that there had been threats against her own life.

"The leadership of Yukos, and Khodorkovsky himself, constantly threatened him. After Khodorkovsky was arrested, I was constantly threatened, followed and bugged because I was a witness," said Islamova, who is also suing Nevzlin.

In a series of inquiries starting in 2003, Khodorkovsky was found guilty on multiple counts of tax evasion and embezzlement and has been charged with money laundering. He has never been formally accused of murder.

The Yukos investigations have been seen by analysts as part of a political campaign to reassert the role of the state in the energy industry and destroy the power of Yukos and of Khodorkovsky, formerly Russia's richest man.

Khodorkovsky incurred the wrath of Vladimir Putin, when he was president, by funding opposition parties and advancing plans to build a privately-funded pipeline to pump oil to China, analysts said.

Yukos has been declared bankrupt and its assets sold off in a process that has benefited state-controlled oil major Rosneft, which is chaired by Deputy Prime Minister Igor Sechin and is now Russia's biggest producer.

Date created : 2008-08-01