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'A step backward'

December 27, 2010

Western powers have slammed a Moscow court's conviction of billionaire Mikhail Khodorkovsky on charges of oil theft. They see the verdict as casting doubt on President Dmitry Medvedev's pledges to modernize Russia.

Khodorkovsky and Lebedev in court
Khodorkovsky's trial has been followed closely in the WestImage: AP

Germany and other Western countries have condemned the guilty verdict pronounced by a Russian court against jailed tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky on new fraud charges.

In a statement, German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle called the verdict "a step backward" for Russia. Westerwelle said that the way the trial was conducted was "very dubious" and called on Russia to "stand up for the rule of law, democracy and human rights."

German Human Rights Commissioner Markus Loening found even stronger words to condemn the verdict, telling the dpa news agency that he was "outraged."

"The judgment throws no good light on circumstances in Russia," he said. Loening described the verdict as "a crass misinterpretation of what happened in court."

'Russia must respect human rights commitments'

Chief European Union diplomat Catherine Ashton called on Russia "to respect its international commitments in the field of human rights and the rule of law." She said the EU would "continue to follow developments very closely, including the forthcoming announcement of the sentence."

Across the Atlantic, United States Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the verdict raised "serious questions about selective prosecution - and about the rule of law being overshadowed by political considerations." Clinton also warned in a statement that "this and similar cases have a negative impact on Russia's reputation for fulfilling its international human rights obligations and improving its investment climate."

Embezzlement charges

Khodorkovsky was found guilty of embezzlement for stealing and reselling over 200 tons of oil from wells he previously owned as head of the Yukos oil company. His business partner and co-defendant Platon Lebedev was also found guilty.

Khodorkovsky supporter holds picture of Putin
Khodorkovsky's supporters see him as a symbol for democratic struggleImage: AP

Khodorkovsky is currently serving an eight-year prison sentence for tax evasion. His release was scheduled for 2011. Sentencing in the current case is expected in the next few days. The prosecution is seeking a six-year jail term.

Shortly after the verdict was read, Khodorkovsky's defense lawyers said they would appeal the decision. Khodorkovsky had previously said he would take the case to the European Court of Human Rights if he was found guilty.

Orchestrated by Putin?

Khodorkovsky and his lawyers say the charges against him are politically motivated. The tycoon has been an outspoken opponent of former president and current prime minister Vladimir Putin, openly funding opposition parties ahead of 2003 parliamentary elections.

Khodorkovsky's original trial in 2003 was widely seen as having been orchestrated by Putin.

If Khodorkovsky remains in jail through 2012, it will prevent him from wielding his influence ahead of the election scheduled in that year.

The current case has been seen as a test of the independence of the Russian justice system. But Monday's conviction sheds grave doubts on President Dmitry Medvedev's vows to modernize Russia and take it out of Putin's shadow.

Author: Timothy Jones (dpa, Reuters, AFP)
Editor: Nancy Isenson

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