Russian oil tycoon again found guilty

Mikhail Khodorkovsky was convicted of theft and money laundering charges Monday, »»

Mikhail Khodorkovsky was convicted of theft and money laundering charges Monday, a verdict that will likely keep the jailed oil tycoon who was once Russia’s richest man behind bars for several more years.

The verdict came less than two weeks after Prime Minister Vladimir Putin said Khodorkovsky was a proven criminal who should sit in prison, a blunt statement reflecting his stance against the man who challenged his power _ remarks denounced by critics as interference in the trial.

Putin, who was president during Khodorkovsky’s first trial, has shown no sign of softening his attitude toward the former oligarch. Putin has not ruled out a return to the presidency in 2012 and critics suspect him of wanting to keep Khodorkovsky incarcerated until after that election. It was clear from the opening pages of his verdict that the judge had found Khodorkovsky and his business partner Platon Lebedev guilty. Reading the full verdict and announcing the sentence was expected to take several days.

Khodorkovsky, 47, is nearing the end of an eight-year sentence after being convicted of tax fraud in a case seen as punishment for challenging the Kremlin’s economic and political power, in part by funding opposition parties in parliament. The conviction on charges of stealing around $27 billion worth of oil his Yukos company produced between 1998 and 2003 and laundering the proceeds could keep him behind bars until at least 2017. Prosecutors accused Khodorkovsky and Lebedev of stealing the oil from Yukos’ own production units and then selling the oil abroad at higher prices. The defense called the charges ridiculous, arguing that prosecutors do not understand the oil business, including the payment of transit fees and export duties.

One of Khodorkovsky’s lawyers, Vadim Klyuvgant, on Monday dismissed the charges as fabricated and said that the guilty verdict was the result of official pressure. “If the court were free and independent in issuing its verdict, it would have issued an acquittal,” Klyuvgant told reporters. “What we heard here confirms that the court has faced pressure.”

Hundreds of Khodorkovsky supporters rallied outside the courthouse, holding up signs saying “Freedom” and “Russia without Putin.” Police detained some of them as they chanted “Freedom” and “Down with Putin!”

In the courtroom, Judge Viktor Danilkin read the verdict in a monotonous low voice, drowned out at times by loud chants from outside. Khodorkovsky and Lebedev sat impassively in a glass cage. Khodorkovsky’s elderly parents were in the room, his father Boris sitting with his head bowed. Khodorkovsky, clad in black, smiled at them and his supporters when guards let him into the cage.

On Friday, Khodorkovsky published an opinion article in the daily Nezavisimaya Gazeta containing a scathing criticism of Putin. “I wish Putin kindness and tolerance, I wish him to be loved, not feared. Maybe not by all, but loved sincerely and unselfishly, and not just by dogs,” he wrote in a reference to Putin’s penchant for the animals.

President Dmitry Medvedev, who despite his title remains Putin’s junior partner, has promised to strengthen the rule of law as part of his mission to modernize Russia and attract more foreign investment. The outcome of the Khodorkovsky trial is seen as a test of whether Medvedev has any real intention -- or real power -- to deliver on his promises. Medvedev urged officials Friday to refrain from commenting on Khodorkovsky’s case before the court rules _ a statement seen by some as a tacit rebuke to Putin for his statement this month that the former tycoon deserves no leniency.