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Russian court convicts anti-Putin oil tycoon in second trial

Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the former head of Russia’s largest oil company and once its richest man, was found guilty of new charges on Tuesday. His supporters say his real crime was daring to oppose the country’s prime minister, Vladimir Putin.


Former oil tycoon and billionaire Mihkail Khodorkovsky, nearing the end of a first sentence of hard labour at a Siberian prison camp, was again found guilty Monday by a judge deliberating on new charges of theft and money laundering at a second trial. Khodorkovsky’s main associate, Platon Lebedev, was also convicted.

The entire case has been called by many a personal vendetta by Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, Russia’s most powerful politician, against a once-potential rival. Writing in the Russian daily "Nezavisimaya Gazeta" on Friday, Russia’s most famous prisoner called Putin “pitiful but dangerous”.

Hard labour

The former boss of Russia’s oil company Yukos has been on a second trial since March 2009, charged with embezzling 218 millions tonnes of oil from his own company. He had already been serving a sentence of eight years hard labour in Siberia, 6000 kilometers from Moscow, for fraud and tax evasion. For the new charges, the prosecution requested an additional 14 years. The court’s full verdict and sentence are expected to be announced over the next few days.

Khodorkovsky's fall goes back to 25 October 2003, when secret police arrested him at a Siberian airport. His company, Yukos-Menatep, built opportunely on the ruins of the Soviet empire, was then at its peak. At the time, it produced more oil than Qatar.

The reason for Khodorkovsky’s arrest, according to his supporters, was his stance against the expanding powers of Vladimir Putin, elected president of the Russian Federation in 2000. Khodorkovsky's mother, Maria, believes that the former president and current prime minister of Russia is behind her son’s misfortunes. "It was the fear of facing someone who has the capabilities of a leader, someone who is capable of uniting society,” that motivated his arrest, she told FRANCE 24 in 2009.

In Putin’s crosshairs

And for good reason: Khodorkovsky had been involved in more than oil. At the time, he began to fund opposition parties, launched an anti-corruption crusade, and called for the privatization of some pipelines – initiatives that were very unpopular with the government.

Anxious to restore state control over the country’s lucrative oil assets, mark its authority and curb the political ambitions of a rich and powerful opponent, the Kremlin did not take long to respond. A judicial and fiscal campaign led to the dismantling of Yukos in 2003 – to the benefit of some close to power – and a sentence of eight years of hard labor for its head.

"Khodorkovsky is in jail because some oligarchs should be in jail: one has to show the new rules of the game," the pro-Kremlin member of parliament Sergei Markov told FRANCE 24 in 2009. Putin repeated this justification on Russian television on December 16. Khodorkovsky was "in jail" because "every thief should go to jail," he said, stating that his "crimes" had been "proved by the court”. Khodorkovsky’s defence and international NGOs immediately accused Putin of interference with the trial.

But faced with such an opponent, Khodorkovsky has not bowed. “The love of dogs is the only sincere and kind sentiment running through his icy armour,” he wrote undauntedly in the Russian daily "Nezavisimaya Gazeta", describing PM Vladimir Putin.

"Just look at the images of his second trial: he’s not broken, he’s dignified and stands with great elegance and courage,” Cecile Vaissié, professor at the University of Rennes and specialist on Russia’s intellectual world, told FRANCE 24.

Obama’s call

While Russian public opinion showed limited sympathy for the former billionaire at the time of his arrest, the mood has changed among some segments of society.

“Intellectuals, well-known writers, journalists and lawyers have stood up to denounce Putin's personal vendetta,” says Vaissié.

Amid the Western chorus of protests, the former oil tycoon has also attracted the attention of US President Barack Obama. Last July he said the "bizarre" new charges against Khodorkovsky and Lebedev came "years after their imprisonment and at a time when they could have been pardoned."

For many observers, the verdict of the trial was a foregone conclusion – and one that calls into question the credibility of Russia’s legal system.

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