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Obama hits out at new Khodorkovsky trial

world Updated: Jul 06, 2009 14:33 IST

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US President Barack Obama criticised the second trial of jailed Russian oil magnate Mikhail Khodorkovsky in an interview published in a sharply anti-Kremlin newspaper on Monday.

"It does seem odd to me that these new charges, which appear to be a repackaging of the old charges, should be surfacing now, years after these two individuals have been in prison and as they become eligible for parole," Obama told Novaya Gazeta, referring to Khodorkovsky and his co-defendant Platon Lebedev.

His comments were published just ahead of his arrival Monday for a summit in Moscow with President Dmitry Medvedev aimed at "resetting" ties with Moscow.

But the US president stressed that he did not know the details of the case and added: "I think it is improper for outsiders to interfere in the legal processes of Russia."

Khodorkovsky's long-running legal saga has raised concerns in the West about the independence of the Russian court system. The tycoon was seen a rival of President Vladimir Putin at the time of his arrest in 2003.

Medvedev, who replaced Putin in the Kremlin last year, has sought to boost the independence of Russia's judiciary -- a move that Obame welcomed as "courageous."

"I would just affirm my support for President Medvedev's courageous initiative to strengthen the rule of law in Russia, which of course includes making sure that all those accused of crimes have the right to a fair trial and that the courts are not used for political purposes," Obama said.

Obama's interview with Novaya Gazeta -- an opposition newspaper where murdered journalist Anna Politkovskaya worked -- is set to be carefully noted in Russian liberal circles.

Medvedev this year gave an interview to the same newspaper, a move that some commentators said would have been unimaginable under Putin's presidency.

Obama appeared to back Medvedev's cautious liberalizing policies, saying that: "I agree with President Medvedev when he said that 'Freedom is better than the absence of freedom.'

"So, I see no reason why we cannot aspire together to strengthen democracy, human rights and the rule of law as part of our 'reset.'"

Khodorkovsky, the former chief of the now-dismantled Yukos oil company, is serving an eight-year jail sentence on charges of fraud and tax evasion.

He is also facing a second trial on fresh charges of embezzling millions of tons of oil and money laundering that could see him jailed for another two decades.

Some Kremlin critics claim that the tycoon is being punished for backing the political opposition, but the Russian government insists he is guilty of massive financial crimes from the country's chaotic 1990s.

Initially some of Khodorkovsky's supporters thought Medvedev would ease the legal pressure on him, but on Sunday Medvedev rejecting pardoning the tycoon unless Khodorkovsky admitted he was guilty of fraud and tax evasion.