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Russia defends verdict against oil tycoon

From Matthew Chance, CNN
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U.S. condemns Russian conviction
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Russia responds to criticism from abroad over the case
  • The White House says the case "appears to be an abusive use of the legal system"
  • Mikhail Khodorkovsky and his business partner are both found guilty
  • Khodorkovsky is the former head of the Yukos oil company

Moscow (CNN) -- Russia on Tuesday responded to international criticism over the conviction of a former Russian oil tycoon and his business partner on corruption charges.

A judge in Moscow found Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the former head of the Yukos oil company, and his partner guilty Monday.

The United States in particular criticized the court proceeding, calling it a case of selective prosecution.

The Russian Foreign Ministry issued a statement dismissing Western criticism over the verdict.

"The attempts at pressuring the court are unacceptable," the statement said, adding that the case falls wholly within the Russian legal system.

Money laundering and tax evasion charges would similarly be criminally prosecuted in any other country, the statement said.

"Allegations about some kind of selective prosecution in Russia are groundless. Russian courts deal with thousands of cases where entrepreneurs are prosecuted," the statement said.

It concluded, "We are expecting that everyone will mind their own business, both at home and in the international arena."

Khodorkovsky's son, Pavel, told CNN that his father will appeal the verdict.

"Of course there will be an appeal," Pavel Khodorkovsky said. "What I'm hoping for right now is the shortest sentence possible, because I'm really hoping to see my dad as soon as possible a free man."

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The trial on money laundering and embezzlement charges, which began in March 2009, was the second for the two men. Khodorkovsky, who is already imprisoned after being convicted on other charges, could be sentenced to prison until 2017.

"The trial was a charade of justice, the charges were absolutely false, but I fear the sentencing will be very real," lead defense lawyer Vadim Klyuvgant said in a written statement.

Khodorkovsky and partner Platon Lebedev were accused of stealing billions of dollars' worth of oil from Yukos production subsidiaries from 1998 to 2003. Khodorkovsky has already been convicted of underpaying taxes on the oil and is serving an eight-year sentence for fraud and tax evasion.

Ahead of the verdict, hundreds of supporters gathered outside the central Moscow courthouse.

Security officers, who maintained a heavy presence outside the building, whisked several people away while others stood in below-freezing temperatures chanting "Freedom" and "Russia without Putin" -- referring to the prime minister.

Khodorkovsky had expressed a desire to run for office at one time and funded opposition political parties. He has said the trial was part of a Kremlin campaign to destroy him and take the company he built from privatization deals of the 1990s.

The Kremlin has denied any role.

Pavel Khodorkovsky said that he had been expecting a guilty verdict for his father, but also "had hoped that President (Dmitry) Medvedev's rhetoric about judicial system reform would actually bear some fruit."

"However, today, I realize that the judge is completely subservient and is a slave to the political will of Mr. (Russian Prime Minister Vladimir) Putin and other bureaucrats in the Kremlin," the younger Khodorkovsky said.

A White House statement Monday also criticized the case, saying it "appears to be an abusive use of the legal system for improper ends."

"The apparent selective application of the law to these individuals undermines Russia's reputation as a country committed to deepening the rule of law," said the statement from White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs,. The statement added that the United States would continue monitoring developments in the case.

In a separate statement, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the conviction "raises serious questions about selective prosecution -- and about the rule of law being overshadowed by political considerations."

"This and similar cases have a negative impact on Russia's reputation for fulfilling its international human rights obligations and improving its investment climate," Clinton's statement said.

The court was originally scheduled to read the verdict in the trial on December 15, but it was unexpectedly postponed.

The Yukos oil company was once Russia's largest oil producer. It was later broken up and absorbed by the state.

Khodorkovsky previously told the Moscow court that its decision will have an impact far beyond him and Lebedev.

"There is much more than just the fates of two people in your hands," Khodorkovsky said. "Right here and right now, the fate of every citizen of our country is being decided."

In October, prosecutors asked for a 14-year prison sentence but said it should include the eight-year term that Khodorkovsky is already serving, which will end in October 2011.

The former oil magnate was previously incarcerated in a work camp near the town of Krasnokamensk, 6,500 kilometers (4,000 miles) from his native Moscow, but when the new charges were brought against the two men, both were moved to Moscow last year to stand trial.

The court also ordered Khodorkovsky and Lebedev to pay about $600 million in back taxes.

Few doubt that Khodorkovsky's prosecution has taken on a symbolism far beyond his own innocence or guilt. Critics say the embezzlement charges against him are absurd; analysts say Russia itself, and its commitment to the rule of law, is on trial.

"This verdict will be a verdict on whether Russia is a law-governed state, or whether it ever aspires to become one," said Masha Lipman of the Carnegie Endowment, "because currently it is not a law-governed state and the trial of Khodorkovsky and his partner Lebedev is the most striking example of it."

In his final address to the court, Khodorkovsky made a last impassioned appeal.

"For me, as for anybody, it is hard to live in jail, and I do not want to die there. But if I have to, I will not hesitate. The things I believe in are worth dying for," he said.

CNN's Maxim Tkachenko contributed to this report.