31 May 2011
The European court of human rights has rejected a claim by imprisoned Russian oil magnate Mikhail Khodorkovsky that his arrest and trial were politically motivated. The court, however, ruled that Khodorkovsky's rights were violated during his arrest in 2003 and detention and awarded him damages.
Khodorkovsky, who was Russia's richest person at the time of his arrest, had funded opposition parties and was seen as a potential political threat to then president Vladimir Putin. Supporters have contended his prosecution for tax evasion and fraud was punishment for challenging the Kremlin.
The European court's rejection of that contention appears to be a significant setback to efforts by Khodorkovsky's supporters to portray him as a prisoner of conscience. He is due for release in 2016.
Khodorkovsky's lawyer, Karinna Moskalenko, said her client was satisfied with the ruling, although he has yet to decide whether to lodge an appeal. Moskalenko said evidence of political motivation behind Khodorkovsky's prosecution had "significantly increased" since the first application to the European court and the defence team was hoping the court would uphold it in the applications that they were working on now.
The next claim to be heard by the court contests a decision to send Khodorkovsky to serve his term in a Siberian jail. Russian law says a convict must be imprisoned in the region where he was convicted, unless there are no facilities available.
Lyudmila Alexeyeva, a veteran rights activist and chair of the Moscow Helsinki Group, told the Interfax news agency that she was disappointed by the court's decision.
The court's ruling referred to Khodorkovsky's first trial, which ended in 2005 when he was found guilty of tax evasion and sentenced to nine years in prison, later reduced by one year. Most observers and fellow businessmen tended to view it at the time as an example of selective justice, saying Khodorkovsky might indeed have used loopholes in the law to lower the tax burden, something most Russian businesses were doing at that time.
In a second trial that concluded last December, Khodorkovsky and business partner Platon Lebedev were convicted of stealing from Khodorkovsky's now liquidated Yukos oil company and sentenced to 13 years in prison, to run concurrently with his previous conviction. Unlike the previous case, the second trial was viewed widely as a political reprisal against Khodorkovsky and was criticised by rights groups and officials in the west. A Moscow appeals court upheld that conviction last week, though it reduced the sentences by a year. Amnesty International last week declared Khodorkovsky and Lebedev to be prisoners of conscience.
The European court's ruling leaves concerns about the rule of law in Russia unresolved. Also unclear is whether Khodorkovsky has any chance of success in his petition for early release, for which he is technically eligible, having served more than half his sentence.
Russian president Dmitry Medvedev said in May that Khodorkovsky "poses absolutely no danger to the society" if released. But Putin, who is now prime minister, has hinted that the oil tycoon might be liable for fresh charges, claiming on one occasion that Khodorkovsky had his hands in blood "up to the elbows".
The human rights court, sitting in Strasbourg, ordered Russia pay €24,000 (£21,000) in damages to Khodorkovsky for rights violations, including being held in cramped and insanitary conditions, and for extending his pretrial detention without justification. Moskalenko said the money would be given to charity.
"The speed with which the investigating authorities had acted suggested they had been prepared for such a development and had wanted Mr Khodorkovsky as a defendant and not as a simple witness. Therefore, his detention had been unlawful as it had been made with a purpose different from the one expressed," the court said.
His lawyers said on Monday that Khodorkovsky had filed for parole, saying he is eligible for early release since he has served half of his 13-year sentence.