Russia on Tuesday tartly told the West to keep out of its domestic affairs after “unacceptable” criticism by the United States and Europe of the new guilty verdict for jailed tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky.
Khodorkovsky is facing the prospect of an additional lengthy jail term after being found guilty in his second trial the day earlier in a verdict that provoked an angry reaction in the West.
The White House said it was “deeply concerned” about the “selective application of justice”. France called for rule of law in Russia, while Germany said the verdict was a step backward for Russia.
Using language unusually blunt for a diplomatic statement, the Russian foreign ministry slammed “unacceptable” Western pressure in a process that has long been a bone of contention between Moscow and its ex-Cold War foes.
“We expect everyone to mind his own business, both at home and in the international arena,” it said. “Attempts to exert pressure on the court are unacceptable,” the foreign ministry said.
“Assertions about some kind of selective application of justice in Russia are groundless. Russian courts consider thousands of cases related to entrepreneurs’ responsibility towards the law.”
The reading of the full verdict in the Khodorkovsky case is expected to be completed over the course of the coming days, with uncertainty surrounding the precise date of the announcement of the sentence.
Already on Monday, judge Viktor Danilkin said Khodorkovsky and co-accused Platon Lebedev had been convicted of embezzlement and money laundering, dashing the hopes of Russian liberals the trial would show a new approach from Russian courts.
On Tuesday, Danilkin continued reading the verdict in a low, monotonous voice, while Khodorkovsky, wearing a black turtleneck, leafed through his papers and many in the courtroom could hardly contain their yawns.
The pursuit of Khodorkovsky has been the most controversial legal action of the post-Soviet era and his trial is seen as a watershed in Russia’s post-Soviet history and a possible sign of its political future.
Once the country’s richest man, now its most prominent prisoner, Khodorkovsky, 47, is already serving an eight-year sentence for fraud.
He is now accused of stealing 218 million tonnes of oil worth more than 26 billion dollars from his own Yukos company between 1998 and 2003.
Khodorkovsky had been scheduled for release in 2011 but the new charges of money laundering and embezzlement could see him stay in jail until 2017 if the judge agrees to the prosecutors’ request.
Khodorkovsky’s supporters see him as a martyr punished for daring to challenge strongman prime minister Vladimir Putin, but for Russian officials he is just a corrupt tycoon who broke the law.
Russia’s liberal financial daily Vedomosti said the new sentence would reflect “some political calculations connected to 2011-2012 and then 2016-2018 elections.”
Russia is heading into parliamentary elections in 2011, followed by the presidential vote in 2012. The next parliamentary vote will take place in 2016, followed by new presidential polls in 2018.
Putin has not ruled out returning to the Kremlin in 2012 to take over from President Dmitry Medvedev and observers say he would be keen to keep the charismatic Khodorkovsky behind bars in the coming years.
“An acquittal verdict for Khodorkovsky and Lebedev would have become a guilty verdict for the Vladimir Putin political system,” Vedomosti said.
Few doubt that the second Yukos trial has become intensely personal for Putin.
The Russian strongman could hardly contain his visceral hate towards the tycoon, saying in a live television call-in show earlier this month that a “thief must be in prison” and alleging that the tycoon had blood on his hands.
Khodorkovsky shot back by saying through a newspaper that he pitied a man who loved only dogs.
“A judge is reading a New Year’s gift for Vladimir Vladimirovich,” Russia’s mass-circulation Moskovsky Komsomolets said in cutting remarks, referring to Putin.