MOSCOW (Reuters) - Former tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s jail term was extended until 2017 on Thursday when he was convicted of theft and money-laundering in a trial condemned in the West as politically motivated.
With Khodorkovsky and co-defendant Platon Lebedev watching from a glass-walled courtroom cage at the close of their trial, the judge said there was no way they could be reformed without “isolation from society.”
Russia’s leading human rights activist called the sentence “monstrous” for the defendants and their country, and the United States said it appeared to result from “an abusive use of the legal system for improper ends.”
Moscow judge Viktor Danilkin granted the prosecutors’ request and ordered Khodorkovsky serve 14 years in prison, including his current eight-year term and counting from the day of his arrest at a Siberian airport in October 2003.
Khodorkovsky, once Russia’s richest man and head of the now defunct Yukos oil company, is in the final year of an eight-year sentence imposed after a politically charged fraud and tax evasion trial that marked one of the defining acts of Vladimir Putin’s 2000-2008 presidency.
Russia has told the West to mind its own business and rejected as “groundless” U.S. suggestions that the verdict resulted from selective justice.
“We remain concerned by the allegations of serious due process violations, and what appears to be an abusive use of the legal system for improper ends,” State Department spokesman Mark Toner said.
A senior official in President Barack Obama’s administration said the verdict would complicate Russia’s bid to join the World Trade Organization -- an effort Obama has supported as part of a “reset” that has improved Russian-U.S. relations.
“It is not going to help their cause, it is only going to complicate their cause,” the official said.
“The impression remains that political motivations played a role in this trial,” German Chancellor Angela Merkel said in Berlin. “This contradicts Russia’s frequently repeated intention to pursue full adoption of the rule of law.”
One of the young tycoons who built fortunes after the Soviet Union’s 1991 collapse, Khodorkovsky fell out with Putin’s Kremlin after airing corruption allegations, challenging state control over oil exports and funding opposition parties.
Dressed in black, Khodorkovsky, whose previous sentence was due to end next October, stood stunned as Danilkin announced the sentence, which his lawyers said was made under pressure from Prime Minister Putin.
“May God damn you and your descendants,” Khodorkovsky’s mother, Marina, shouted at the judge’s back as he hurriedly left the courtroom immediately after the sentencing.
Khodorkovsky had adamantly denied the charges, and supporters said the conviction made a mockery of Russian President Dmitry Medvedev’s pledges to improve the rule of law.
“Our example shows that in Russia, you cannot hope the courts will protect you from government officials,” Khodorkovsky and Lebedev said in a statement read out by lead lawyer Vadim Klyuvgant after the sentencing.
“The sentence was clearly issued under pressure from the executive authorities, headed as before by Mr. Putin,” said Yuri Shmidt, another lawyer on the defense team.
“Putin signaled to the court who is the boss today and who today decides Khodorkovsky’s fate and life,” he said.
“This sentence is monstrous for these two honorable people and for the country,” Lyudmila Alexeyeva, a Soviet-era dissident and Russia’s most prominent right activist, told Reuters.
“The fate of Khodorkovsky and Lebedev and the length of their imprisonment depend on how long Putin stays in power.”
Putin made no public reference to the sentence, and his spokesman declined to comment. President Medvedev also made no public comment.
The sentence stoked renewed accusations of selective justice and could strain Russia’s ties with the United States and the European Union, which said the conviction raised questions about Moscow’s commitment to human rights.
“The consequences will be hard for Russia as a country seeking to attract investment and will take a toll on its reputation internationally,” Maria Lipman, an analyst at the Carnegie Moscow Center, told Reuters.
The Obama administration official said the case would complicate Russia’s bid for membership in the WTO, which Putin said on Wednesday Moscow could be expected to join next year, because “the WTO is a rules based, rule of law organization.”
“Most countries around the world do not look at this verdict as a demonstration of the deepening of the rule of law in Russia It will definitely have an effect on Russia’s reputation,” the official said.
With the economy slowing after the global financial meltdown hit Russia harder than its emerging market peers, Medvedev has courted the West and sought U.S. and EU support for a campaign to modernize the energy-reliant economy.
He has vowed to curb corruption and lawlessness that hinder investment, but has made little progress. Western nations have warned pointedly that independent courts are a crucial foundation for economic progress.
But many investors are inured to the backdrop for business in Russia, and the Kremlin may have calculated it could afford to keep Khodorkovsky in jail. Putin has tried to soothe investors by casting him as an isolated case.
In the second trial, which dragged on in a drab Moscow courtroom for nearly two years, prosecutors said he and Lebedev stole nearly $30 billion in oil from Yukos subsidiaries through price mechanisms and laundered some of the money. Khodorkovsky’s lawyers dismissed the charges as a pretext to keep him in jail.
They vowed to appeal the verdict, opening the door to a potentially divisive debate over his fate in the run-up to parliamentary elections next year and a 2012 presidential vote that could see the return of Putin to the Kremlin.
After Khodorkovsky’s 2003 arrest, Yukos was bankrupted by back-tax claims and its top assets sold to the state.
Additional reporting by Thomas Grove, John Bowker and Olga Kanorskaya; writing by Alissa de Carbonnel and Steve Gutterman