U.S., Europe Criticize Khodorkovsky Sentence by Russian Court

Mikhail Khodorkovsky reacts after being sentenced in a Moscow court room, 30 Dec 2010

Western governments on Thursday criticized the heavy jail sentence handed down by a Moscow court to former oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, whose trial is seen by some as a failed test of the rule of law in Russia.

Khodorkovsky and his business partner Platon Lebedev were given new 14 year prison sentences, ending a 20-month trial, and adding six years to the eight the two have already spent behind bars.

U.S. State Department spokesman Mark Toner said Thursday the sentencing appeared to be "an abusive use of the legal system for improper ends."

Defense lawyer Yury Shmidt said the decision was the result of political pressure from Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. As he put it,"Putin signaled to the court today who is the boss."

Judge Viktor Danilkin on Thursday gave Khodorkovsky the maximum sentence requested by prosecutors after convicting him of stealing from his own oil company, Yukos, and laundering the proceeds.

Khodorkovsky's mother, Marina, on Thursday called the trial a "comedy."

Once Russia's richest man, Khodorkovsky's fortunes changed in 2003 when he challenged then president Vladimir Putin and supported the powerful politician's political opponents.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel said Thursday in a statement that it appeared that "political motives played a role" in the proceedings.

Thursday's sentence includes previous time served, so Khodorkovsky will spend another six years in jail before being eligible to be freed in 2017, well after the 2012 Russian presidential election that Mr. Putin could run in.

Mr. Putin, now prime minister, said in a phone-in interview session with the public before the trial that a thief should remain in prison.

Khodorkovsky and Lebedev are serving the last year of eight-year prison terms on earlier charges of tax evasion and fraud. Lebedev on Thursday received the same sentence as Khodorkovsky.

State Department spokesman Toner said that "simply put, the Russian government cannot nurture a modern economy without also developing an independent judiciary."

The head of the European Parliament Jerzy Buzek said Thursday the judge's decision was an "emblematic symbol" of Russia's failure in adopting the rule of law and human rights values.