Russian Oil Magnate Convicted of Fraud, Tax Evasion
STEVE INSKEEP, host:
The man once known as Russia's richest tycoon has been pronounced guilty today. Mikhail Khodorkovsky was convicted of various charges, including fraud and tax invasion, and he has been sentenced to nine years in prison, minus time served. We learned all this for certain today when authorities finished a 12-day process of reading the verdict aloud. NPR's Anne Garrels has been following this process in Moscow.
And, Annie, what's been the response to this verdict?
ANNE GARRELS reporting:
Well, I guess, on the one hand relief that it's finally over but despair on the part of the defendants. Forty-one-year-old Khodorkovsky accused the court of corruption, and his co-defendant, Platon Lebedev, said no normal, sane person would understand what has been read out here. The verdict is one year less than the 10-year maximum sought by the prosecution. Given time served, this means the two men will be in prison for another seven and a half years.
INSKEEP: Remind us why this particular trial received so much international attention.
GARRELS: Well, it's a murky case all around. Mikhail Khodorkovsky was unquestionably the beneficiary of bent rules and blind eyes during the end of the Soviet regime when he was able to build his fortune and oil empire, but he was far from the only one. And the question from the start of the trial has been why him? Why was he singled out? It's generally believed he violated a pact President Putin struck with the so-called oligarches, that they could keep what they got in the '90s if they stayed out of politics. But Khodorkovsky and his associates funded several political parties opposed to Putin.
Now while some oligarches caved under pressure and fled abroad, Khodorkovsky's sin, in the eyes of his supporters, is that he did not crack and run. The near destruction of his company, Yukos, which was forced to meet billions in questionable back taxes and was largely sold off in a government-rigged auction, has brought the company back under state control. And this has reinforced suspicions, at the very least, that presidential power here in Russia still matters more than the law.
INSKEEP: Well, what does that say about the hopes for more democracy in Russia?
GARRELS: Well, you know, that's very unclear. I mean, the conduct at the trial has raised many questions, not only here but from the council of Europe and the US government. Whatever the case for revisiting the questionable privatizations of the '90s, the court in this case has restricted defendants' access to their lawyers. There's been harassment of witnesses, retroactive tax claims and selective application of the law, all reinforcing the belief that the Kremlin is behind the case. And you can add to this the anti-Khodorkovsky demonstrations outside the courthouse. It's true, many Russians who lost everything in the '90s have no love for Khodorkovsky, but as one demonstrator acknowledged to me, she'd been basically brought from a municipal organization and told to stand outside the courthouse. `We had to come,' she said.
INSKEEP: That's NPR's Anne Garrels in Moscow.
Anne, thanks very much.
GARRELS: Thank you.
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