MOSCOW An aide to the judge who sentenced jailed ex-tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky to six more years in prison in December said on Monday that the verdict was written by higher-level members of the judiciary.
Trial judge Viktor Danilkin and other court officials swiftly denied the claim, by Danilkin's aide Natalya Vasilyeva, which reinforced Kremlin critics' suspicions that Khodorkovsky's guilty verdict and sentence were dictated from above.
Vasilyeva's remarks added to the intrigue surrounding the December 30 verdict in the former Yukos oil company CEO's second trial, which drew vocal criticism from Western governments and reinforced their concerns about the rule of law in Russia.
Vasilyeva, who also acts as spokeswoman for Moscow's Khamovniki district court, said the lengthy verdict Danilkin read out in late December was written not by him but by judges from the Moscow City Court, a federal appeals court.
"I know with absolutely certainty that the verdict was brought from the Moscow City Court. And that this verdict was written by judges on the criminal appeals bench -- that is, the Moscow City Court," she told Internet news site gazeta.ru.
Vasilyeva said she was told who had written the verdict but she did not reveal the names of any judges or other sources.
Danilkin denied Vasilyeva's claim and indicated he might sue for libel over the remarks, Russian media reported.
Moscow City Court spokeswoman Anna Usachyova also denied the claim and suggested that it was aimed to overturn the verdict.
"It's a provocation, carefully planned by somebody -- it remains to be seen by whom," Usachyova said.
Khodorkovsky was convicted of fraud and tax evasion in 2005 in what supporters said was part of a Kremlin campaign to punish the tycoon for perceived challenges to then-President Vladimir Putin and to tighten state control over oil revenues.
After a second trial, Danilkin convicted Khodorkovsky on multibillion-dollar theft and money-laundering charges and sentenced him to remain in prison until October 2017.
Khodorkovsky's lawyers accused Putin, now the prime minister, of pressuring the judge. They cited nationally televised remarks days earlier in which Putin had suggested that Khodorkovsky had blood on his hands and that 150 years would be a fitting sentence if allowed by law.
Khodorkovsky's lead lawyer, Vadim Klyuvgant, told Ekho Moskvy radio that the Defense team had long maintained that Danilkin did not reach his verdict independently.
Hearings on Khodorkovsky's appeal of the verdict have not yet begun.
Vasilyeva, who said in the interview that she does not believe Khodorkovsky should be in prison, said she believed she would be fired for the comments.
Usachyova said Vasilyeva was on vacation and suggested she would not be dismissed by the Moscow City Court, which is in charge of the lower-level courts in the capital.
"What made you think the Moscow City Court would fire some clerk in a district court?" she said.
(Additional reporting by Maria Tsvetkova and Denis Dyomkin; Editing by Alastair Macdonald)