Former oil tycoon sentenced to nine years in biggest Russian trial since communist era

Published: Wednesday, June 1, 2005 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, May 31, 2005 at 11:26 p.m.
MOSCOW - The fallen oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky was sentenced to nine years in prison Tuesday, ending the biggest case in post-Soviet Russia. The year-long trial spurred accusations that it was linked to Khodorkovsky's opposition to President Vladimir Putin, and stoked the fears of foreign investors.
The 41-year-old Khodorkovsky was convicted Tuesday on charges that included tax evasion and fraud. He promised to clear his name, and his Yukos oil company promised to fight a series of court battles - keeping a spotlight on doubts about the rule of law in Russia.
''Shame! Shame!'' Khodorkovsky's supporters chanted outside the Meshchansky court, where they rallied daily during the year-long trial holding portraits of the capitalist-turned-philanthropist and yellow and green balloons, the colors of the Yukos company he founded and turned into Russia's biggest oil producer.
In Washington, President Bush criticized Khodorkovsky's trial in unusually blunt language aimed at a U.S. ally in the war on terrorism. ''Here, you're innocent until proven guilty and it appeared to us, at least people in my administration, that it looked like he had been adjudged guilty prior to having a fair trial,'' Bush said.
Capital flight has tripled in Russia in the year since Khodorkovsky's arrest, and the growth of oil exports has slowed sharply, raising questions about the state's stronger hand in the vital industry.
While Khodorkovsky, who was once estimated to have a $15 billion fortune through his now-dismantled oil empire, is widely unpopular as one of the ''oligarchs'' who became immensely wealthy during the murky post-Soviet privatization of state industries in the 1990s, many Russians saw political motives behind his trial.
His supporters contend it was part of a Kremlin-driven campaign to punish him for financing opposition parties and to stifle his own political ambitions. After spending 583 days in custody, he faces 7 years more in prison, which would keep him jailed past the 2008 election to pick Putin's successor and potentially the 2012 ballot as well. Natalya Vishnyakova, a spokeswoman for the prosecutor-general, denied the case had anything to do with politics. She said it was only about "banal theft."

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