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Oil Tycoon Khodorkovsky’s Conviction Draws Global Rebuke for Russia

December 27, 2010 at 5:50 PM EDT
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The latest conviction of imprisoned oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky -- this time on embezzling charges -- has garnered international attention and renewed concerns over political repression and the rule of law in Russia. Jeffrey Brown reports on the latest chapter in the legal saga for the wealthy Kremlin critic.

JEFFREY BROWN: And now to Russia, where an unlikely figure has become a lightning rod for concerns about political repression and the rule of law.

Mikhail Khodorkovsky stood in the defendant’s last cage as a judge convicted him of embezzling nearly $30 billion in oil from the company he once ran. His lawyer reacted even as the verdict was still being read.

VADIM KLYUVGANT, attorney for Mikhail Khodorkovsky (through translator): Of course, once the verdict is fully announced, we are going to appeal against it. Irrespectively, of the substantive part, including the sentence, we are convinced the accusation is false. It is not a mistake. It is a fake, a crime.

JEFFREY BROWN: For Khodorkovsky, it was the latest twist in a saga that began in the 1990s. After the old Soviet Union collapsed, he took over Yukos, Russia’s largest oil company, and became one of the country’s new oligarchs and Russia’s richest man.

He also began to branch into politics, funding opposition candidates and publicly accusing the Kremlin of corruption. In 2003, Khodorkovsky was arrested and sent to a Siberian prison for tax evasion. Critics inside the country and abroad claimed the arrest was politically motivated.

But then President Vladimir Putin said he was cracking down on fraud, and the government seized the oil company. Putin is now prime minister, but still seen as Russia’s most powerful figure. Earlier this month, he compared Khodorkovsky to American financier Bernard Madoff.

VLADIMIR PUTIN, Russian prime minister (through translator): A thief should sit in jail. If you look at the practice in other countries, Bernard Madoff’s punishment in the U.S. for a similar crime was 150 years in prison.

JEFFREY BROWN: But, on Christmas Eve, Putin’s chosen successor, President Dmitry Medvedev, seemed to push back.

DMITRY MEDVEDEV, Russian president (through translator): Neither the president nor any other official person in the service of the state has the right to express his position on this case or on any other case before the moment the verdict is announced.

JEFFREY BROWN: Today, protesters gathered outside the Moscow courthouse, and opposition leaders charged Putin had influenced the outcome.

BORIS NEMTSOV, Russian opposition leader (through translator): What is happening here has no relation whatsoever to law, humanity or justice.

MARGARET WARNER: Khodorkovsky had been nearing the end of his initial jail term, but this new conviction could keep him behind bars until at least 2017.