MOSCOW Russia's top court refused on Tuesday to free former oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky after a decade behind bars but trimmed his sentence by two months, ensuring one of President Vladimir Putin's biggest critics will spend another year in prison.
The Supreme Court ruling should allow Khodorkovsky to walk free in August 2014 after his lawyers complained that a court that last year cut his 2010 sentence for stealing oil and money laundering should have allowed a bigger reduction.
But in a video link from his prison colony near the Arctic Circle, the former head of the Yukos oil company had asked the court to free him immediately and said the case against him was politically motivated.
"In this case, the usual mantra that everything is legal and well-grounded just won't do," Khodorkovsky, 50, told the court, wearing a black shirt and reading from notes clearly and calmly.
Some Kremlin critics see Khodorkovsky, who was arrested in 2003 after falling out with Putin and convicted of fraud and tax evasion in 2005, as a potential opposition leader. They fear he will not be freed until Putin is sure he is not a threat, and that he could soon face new charges to keep him in prison.
His lawyers said they would appeal against Tuesday's ruling in the hope that he would be released before next August.
"Russian penal colonies never were, and are not, conducive to feeling better, especially after 10 years. But considering all that, his spirit is unbreakable," defence lawyer Vadim Klyuvgant said after the ruling.
Khodorkovsky's business partner, Platon Lebedev, also had his sentence cut by two months and should be released in May.
The Kremlin denies interfering in court cases. But the Supreme Court ruling ensured one of Putin's main foes remained in jail while appearing to make a minor concession by cutting a small part of his long sentence that might appease some critics.
ATTACK ON JUDICIARY
"Faulty court rulings have already become a catalyst for the protest movement (against Putin). A growing part of society is demanding ... to be able to live not by lies and not be afraid," he Khodorkovsky said in court, attacking Russia's judiciary.
His parents, Marina and Boris, were in court. In a pause in proceedings, Boris Khodorkovsky told his son through the video link that he was looking forward to their next prison meeting. Mikhail Khodorkovsky grinned, waved back and nodded his head.
Khodorkovsky's $40-billion business empire has been broken up and sold off, mainly into state hands, since he crossed Putin by funding groups other than the main pro-Kremlin party and suggesting some oil deals involving the state were corrupt.
Many foreign investors saw his jailing as a turning point in Putin's 2000-2008 presidency, giving hardliners the upper hand and ultimately increasing their control over the economy.
The suspicions that Khodorkovsky might face new charges stem from the flight from Russia this year of a liberal economist who came under pressure from investigators over a report he co-authored that was critical of Khodorkovsky's 2010 conviction.
Investors said his release would have been a positive sign but they are now more concerned about the treatment of opposition leader Alexei Navalny, who is appealing against a five-year jail term after being convicted in July of theft.
Navalny, 37, is widely seen as more likely to be able to challenge Putin politically than Khodorkovsky, although opinion polls show Putin is by far Russia's most popular politician.
In their first trial, Khodorkovsky and Lebedev were sentenced to nine years in prison, later reduced to eight, for fraud and tax evasion. They both pleaded not guilty.
More charges were brought against them and, found guilty of money laundering and theft in 2010, their sentences were extended until 2017. They were later reduced to 2016 on appeal and then to 2014.
The European Court of Human Rights last month rejected suggestions that the case against Khodorkovsky had been politically motivated but found that the initial trial was unfair and the 2005 sentencing was unjustified.
(Writing by Timothy Heritage, editing by Jon Boyle)