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Europe

EU: Khodorkovsky Case "Internal Affair"

The European Commission declined to comment Tuesday on judgments handed down on Russian oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, but German observers criticized a lack of objectivity in the trial.

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Tax evader or political prisoner?

The European Union's executive arm, speaking as Khodorkovsky was found guilty on one count of fraud, said that it has always pressed Russia on human rights, and would continue to do so.

"The commission is not in a position to judge, and it's not up to the commission to judge whether Mr. Khodorkovsky is guilty or not," said a spokeswoman for EU external relations commissioner Benita Ferrera-Waldner. "But what is important from our point view is the signal sent to the business and investor community. What's important to us is that there is a transparent and non-discriminatory framework for business to invest in Russia."

She was speaking after Khodorkovsky and his business associate Platon Lebedev were found guilty by a Moscow court Tuesday of a count of fraud, the first of 11 counts in the controversial trial.

Michail Chodorkowski Prozess in Moskau Demonstrant

Russian riot police detain a Khodorkovsky supporter Khodorkovsky outside the court room

Reading of the verdict began Monday, with a three-judge panel taking turns to read from the complex indictment in the 11-month trial.

Chief EU commission spokeswoman Francoise Le Bail also underlined that the EU executive cannot meddle in internal Russian affairs.

"The Yukos affair is of course a domestic and internal affair for Russia," she said. "We have always been advocating with the Russian authorities ... for respect of human rights and respect of civil society as well, and this is what we will continue doing."

A blank check from Schröder?

German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder also hasn't seemed perturbed by the case. Schröder, who has a close working relationship with Putin, has said that it isn't unusual for the state to prosecute someone for tax evasion. Following summits with Putin in the past year, he said that he has confidence that a just result will be reached.

But German observers of the trial came to a different conclusion and criticized Schröder's stand in the matter.

Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger YUKOS Mikhail Khodorkovsky

Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger

Former German Justice Minister Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger, who is monitoring the trial for the Council of Europe, said Schröder's statements amounted to a "blank check" that he has issued "without knowing what's really going on."

In an interview with German public broadcaster MDR on Monday, Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger also called the judge's verdict "a ratification of the indictment.

"This shows that the judge isn't making an objective decision," the neoliberal Free Democratic German parliamentarian added. "The prosecutor dominates, as has been the case throughout the trial."

An authoritarian relapse?

Others in Germany also expressed concern over the state of Russian rule of law.

"Judging by the verdict so far, everything seems to suggest that the case against Khodorkovsky has been politically motivated," said Katrin Göring-Eckardt, the parliamentary leader of Germany's Greens, who form part of the governing coalition.

She added that Khodorkovsky was on trial for his own political ambitions and warned against "a relapse into authoritarian times that seemed to have been overcome."

Economic interests?

Russland Deutschland Bundeskanzler Gerhard Schröder und Präsident Wladimir Putin in Moskau

Putin and Schröder talk during their meeting in Moscow on May 9, 2005

Khodorkovsky lawyer Amsterdam said market access has steered Schröder's ambivalence towards Khodorkovsky's fate.


"The German chancellor worked as an accomplice to the Kremlin's theft," Amsterdam said in an interview with Berliner Zeitung in April.

German gas companies have watched the smashing of Yukos with interest. Utility giants E.On and RWE already have stakes in Russia's vast and profitable energy sector, and have looked at the auction of Yukos assets with interest.

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