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One of Russia's richest men has been sentenced to nine years in a labor camp. Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the former head of the Yukos oil company, was convicted today of fraud and tax evasion. The verdict ends the most politically charged and closely watched trial since the end of the Soviet Union. NPR's Anne Garrels reports from Moscow.
ANNE GARRELS reporting:
The judge declared the defense arguments to be groundless, and after a trial of 10 months and 12 laborious days of reading the summation, the sentence was finally pronounced. A year short of the maximum demanded by the prosecution and with time already served Khodorkovsky faces seven and a half years in a labor camp.
Unidentified Woman: (Foreign language spoken)
GARRELS: The spokeswoman for the prosecutor's office declared the trial legal and denied there was anything political about it. And within minutes of sentencing, the prosecutor said additional charges will be filed against Khodorkovsky.
In Washington, President Bush expressed concerns about the trial. Tom Lantos, the ranking Democrat on the House International Relations Committee, was outside the Moscow courtroom.
Representative TOM LANTOS (Democrat, California; House International Relations Committee): It seems that this political trial before a kangaroo court has come to a shameful conclusion.
GARRELS: Forty-one-year-old Mikhail Khodorkovsky is one of Russia's most controversial figures. He took advantage of connections and loopholes to build his fortune. Russians who lost everything in the post-Soviet turmoil have no sympathy and blame him for their poverty. But Khodorkovsky was far from the only businessman to benefit from the chaos, and the question from the start of the trial has been: Why him?
Analysts believe he violated a pact President Vladimir Putin struck with the so-called oligarchs, that they could keep their fortunes if they stayed out of politics. But Khodorkovsky backed several political parties opposed to Putin, and he funded organizations aimed at developing a civil society.
US and European officials have sharply criticized the conduct of the trial. While Khodorkovsky was in jail, his oil company was largely sold off in a highly questionable auction which has brought it back under state control. This has fueled charges the government's case was little more than an asset grab. Sociologist Olga Kryshtanovskaya, a member of the Academy of Sciences who came to support Khodorkovsky, pointed to the Soviet-style harassment around the courthouse.
Ms. OLGA KRYSHTANOVSKAYA (Sociologist; Member, Academy of Sciences): (Foreign language spoken)
GARRELS: She noted the hundreds of policemen and the busing in of Khodorkovsky opponents. Indeed, many of those with placards denouncing Khodorkovsky acknowledged they were government workers who had been told to turn up.
Speaking through one of his lawyers, Khodorkovsky said he's not guilty and will continue to fight for justice in Russia, not just for himself, but for all. His lawyers plan to appeal, though they say they have little hope.
Investors are jittery. Capital flight is once again on the rise. US Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez told Russian and US business representatives here in the Russian capital the case makes people concerned, leery about an environment they don't understand. The Khodorkovsky case is far from over. Anne Garrels, NPR News, Moscow.
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