Jailed tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s chances of being released from prison were dealt a blow by an uncompromising message from Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, Moscow newspapers said Friday.
Russia’s powerful former president used a televised question and answer session Thursday to observe that a “thief must be in prison” and compare Russia’s former richest man to jailed US financier Bernard Madoff.
The country’s most famous prisoner is serving the seventh year of an eight-year sentence for fraud.
But the former Yukos oil chief faces another six years behind bars for a second set of tax evasion and embezzlement charges.
This week’s reading of the second verdict has been postponed without explanation until December 27.
Some analysts speculated that the court did not want to start issuing a judgement in the case until after Putin’s televised intervention.
The papers detected a far more severe tone from Putin than that voiced previously by President Dmitry Medvedev.
“According to Putin, Khodorkovsky’s guilt has been proven — prior to the court verdict,” the opposition Novaya Gazeta newspaper observed.
“Putin believes that Khodorkovsky is Russia’s Madoff. And he says this before the court verdict. So what do we get here? Is the prime minister putting pressure on the court, foretelling a conviction?”
The respected Vedomosti business daily said Putin’s statements “either contradict Medvedev’s policies or do not take them into account,” adding that Medvedev “has said that it was inadmissible for officials to talk about the Khodorkovsky trial.”
Medvedev has been seen as a more liberal force in Russia compared to the former KGB agent Putin.
But others noted that all Putin had done was spell out a position that he has held since the very first court process began against Khodorkovsky in 2003.
“It is worth noting that the prime minister has said all of this before — although perhaps not to so many people, and not on live TV,” Kommersant observed.
Khodorkovsky is believed to have infuriated then-president Putin by openly funding parties opposed to the Kremlin and disagreeing with the president’s policies on oil pipeline routes.