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Court finds Khodorkovsky guilty

A Moscow court today found jailed tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky guilty in his second trial on charges of embezzlement in a judgement seen as a watershed in the country's post-Soviet history.

world Updated: Dec 27, 2010 14:05 IST

A Moscow court on Monday found jailed tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky guilty in his second trial on charges of embezzlement in a judgement seen as a watershed in the country's post-Soviet history.

The court found Khodorkovsky and his co-accused Platon Lebedev guilty of embezzlement, the ITAR-TASS and Interfax news agencies reported.

They had been charged with embezzling 218 million tonnes of oil from his own Yukos company between 1998 and 2003 -- a charge the defence team says is absurd.

Only a handful of reporters were allowed into the courtroom for the verdict and judge Viktor Danilkin then requested even those journalists to leave as the rest of the verdict was read out.

Once the country's richest man, now its most prominent prisoner, Khodorkovsky, 47, is already serving an eight-year sentence for fraud on charges his supporters insist were trumped up by the authorities.

But with his release scheduled for next year, Khodorkovsky was put on trial on charges of money laundering and embezzlement that could see the head of the now-defunct Yukos oil giant stay in jail until 2017.

The pursuit of Khodorkovsky has been the most controversial legal action of the post-Soviet era.

Khodorkovsky's supporters see him as a martyr punished for daring to challenge strongman Vladimir Putin by financing opposition parties but Russian officials view him as a corrupt tycoon who profited by breaking the law.

Hundreds of journalists and supporters of the fallen tycoon crowded outside the courtroom in central Moscow, with those allowed in surprised to discover that there would be no transmission of proceedings in the so-called press room.

The verdict was watched as a possible indicator of Russia's future direction under premier Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev, amid speculation that Putin is planning a return to the Kremlin in 2012 polls.

But an advisor to Medvedev's flagship modernisation project Monday had made an impassioned plea for an acquittal, saying it was an essential message for foreign investment and to show change is possible.

"Such a verdict would satisfy business, the West in the widest sense of the word and potential investors in Russia," said Yurgens, head of The Institute of Contemporary Development think tank set up by Medvedev when he came to power in 2008.

"An acquittal, it seems to me, is the only thing that can be considered not only fair but pragmatic and rational in every sense," he added.

Moscow's Khamovnichesky court had been due to start reading the verdict on December 15, but unexpectedly postponed the announcement without giving an explanation.

The next day Putin compared Khodorkovsky to US fraudster Bernard Madoff, jailed for 150 years, and observed that a "thief must be in prison" in comments decried by the fallen magnate's legal team as direct meddling.

Aides later insisted that Putin was only referring to the first trial.

Khodorkovsky launched his own lacerating attack against Putin on Friday, saying he pitied a man who could only feel love for dogs.

"A love for dogs is the only sincere kind feeling that penetrates the armour of ice worn by the national symbol of the start of the millennium," Khodorkovsky wrote in an article for the Nezavisimaya Gaeta.

"A man who wears such an armour cannot be happy."

Like many other billionaires, Khodorkovsky made his fortune in controversial loans-for-shares privatization in the 1990s. But he quickly built his Yukos oil company into the first Russian major that adopted international accounting standards.

While other tycoons chose to toe the Kremlin line however, Khodorkovsky openly defied Russia's top boss by financing the political opposition.

When storm clouds began gathering, he refused to leave the country and found himself arrested on the tarmac in Siberia in 2003.

First Published: Dec 27, 2010 14:03 IST