MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russia accused the United States and Europe on Tuesday of trying to influence the trial of jailed former tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, calling such efforts unacceptable and warning the West to mind its own business.
Moscow’s angry message came as Khodorkovsky, whose imprisonment has been a bone of contention between Russia and the West for years, awaited a new sentence that could keep him in jail until 2017 after being found guilty of theft.
Prosecutors are seeking an additional six-year prison term for Khodorkovsky, the former Yukos oil company CEO who is 10 months from the end of an eight-year sentence imposed after a previous trial during Vladimir Putin’s presidency.
“Attempts to apply pressure on the court are unacceptable,” the Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement, responding to U.S. and EU criticism aired on Monday after Khodorkovsky was found guilty of multi-billion-dollar theft and money laundering.
“We are counting on everyone to mind his own business — both at home and in the international arena,” it said.
In the second trial, prosecutors said Khodorkovsky stole $27 billion in oil from Yukos subsidiaries through pricing schemes and laundered some of the money, charges he called absurd.
Western officials said the guilty verdict raised doubts about the Kremlin’s commitment to the rule of law and human rights, and warned they were closely watching the case.
The Russian ministry said the trial was a matter for Russia’s courts and rejected U.S. suggestions that the verdict resulted from selective justice as “groundless.”
The warning suggested the outcome of Khodorkovsky’s second trial could cause friction with Europe and strain the “reset” that has improved ties between the United States and Russia.
It echoed accusations of Western meddling during Putin’s 2000-2008 presidency, when Russia bristled at frequent U.S. and EU criticism.
Trial judge Viktor Danilkin edged toward sentencing Khodorkovsky, who has been in jail since 2003, plowing through a lengthy guilty verdict against the tycoon and his business partner Platon Lebedev.
Danilkin is expected to hand down the sentence sometime this week when he finishes reading out the verdict.
Khodorkovsky’s defense team has alleged government pressure on the judge and vowed to appeal.
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.
Putin is now prime minister but remains Russia’s most powerful man. His successor, Dmitry Medvedev, has made freeing Russia’s courts of political influence and corruption, along with modernizing the economy, two of the top goals of his presidency.
Police blocked the streets within 100 meters of Moscow’s Khamovnichesky court on Tuesday, a day after hundreds of protesters gathered outside, calling for Khodorkovsky’s release and shouting “Shame!.” Police detained about 30 demonstrators.
A harsh sentence in Khodorkovsky’s second trial would draw further criticism of Medvedev, the protege Putin steered into the presidency in 2008 when he ran up against a constitutional limit of two straight Kremlin terms.
Medvedev has courted U.S. and EU support for modernization, putting on a more pleasant face than Putin often showed to foreign powers in his presidency and traveling to California’s Silicon Valley in search of ideas for innovation.
He signed a major nuclear arms limitation treaty with President Barack Obama in April, the centerpiece of a drive to improve ties between the Cold War foes.
Reacting on Monday to a verdict she said raised serious concerns about “the rule of law being overshadowed by political considerations,” U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said independent courts were necessary for modernization.
“We welcome President Medvedev’s modernization plans, but their fulfillment requires the development of a climate where due process and judicial independence are respected,” Clinton said.
The EU expressed concern, and German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle called the developments “highly alarming and a step backward for the country on its road toward modernization.”
Medvedev is struggling to show significant results on his reform initiatives as a 2012 presidential election approaches.
Putin has said he and Medvedev will decide together on a Kremlin candidate for the vote, but many Russians believe Putin will ultimately make the choice.
The two leaders set conflicting tones in the days before the verdict’s delivery, with Putin telling the nation Khodorkovsky had blood on his hands and Medvedev stressing that no official should comment in advance of the verdict.
After Khodorkovsky’s 2003 arrest, Yukos was bankrupted by back-tax claims and its top assets sold to the state, deepening Western concerns over property rights and the rule of law.
Additional reporting by Gleb Bryanski and Alissa de Carbonnel; writing by Steve Gutterman; editing by David Stamp