Mikhail B. Khodorkovsky
MOSCOW — A judge in Moscow on Monday handed down a new conviction against Mikhail B. Khodorkovsky, the former oil tycoon, in a case that has been widely seen as an indicator of the state of political freedoms in Russia.
Mr. Khodorkovsky, who has already been imprisoned for seven years after feuding with Vladimir V. Putin, was found guilty on embezzlement charges that could keep him behind bars for several more years, Russian news agencies reported from inside the closed courtroom.
Formerly Russia’s richest man, Mr. Khodorkovsky, 47, is the country’s most well-known prisoner, and his treatment has been held up by opponents of the Kremlin as evidence that the justice system here is readily manipulated by those in power.
The judge did not immediately pass sentence, and it was unclear when he might do so. While a guilty verdict was expected, the length of the sentence will be scrutinized as a sign of whether the Kremlin wants to loosen or tighten control over the political system.
Mr. Putin, the former president and current prime minister, has often assailed Mr. Khodorkovsky as a criminal who ordered his associates to kill people so that he could amass wealth. Just this month, Mr. Putin referred to Mr. Khodorkovsky as a thief who should “sit in jail” — criticism that Mr. Khodorkovsky’s lawyers described as a blatant attempt to pressure the court.
A short prison sentence might be considered a victory for Mr. Putin’s protégé, President Dmitri A. Medvedev, a former law professor who is thought of as less of a hard-liner. Mr. Medvedev has been promoting policies to modernize Russia, and analysts say the Khodorkovsky case is an obstacle toward convincing foreign investors that the country’s legal system is fair.
Mr. Khodorkovsky’s co-defendant and business associate, Platon L. Lebedev, was also found guilty on Monday by the judge, Viktor Danilkin.
Mr. Khodorkovsky earned his fortune in the rough-and-tumble 1990’s after the fall of Communism, snapping up state-owned oil fields at a fraction of their worth and then creating one of the world’s largest oil companies. Like many Russian businessmen at the time, he had a reputation for engaging in practices that would be illegal or unsavory in the West.
He later decided to reform both his image and his business, and became a champion, at least publicly, of good corporate governance. He also delved into politics, which is where he seems to have run into trouble.
After Mr. Putin became president in 2000, he made clear to the class of tycoons who earned their fortunes in the 1990’s that they could keep their holdings if they did not interfere with the Kremlin.
Mr. Khodorkovsky apparently did not heed the message. He financed political parties and ignored increasingly pointed warnings from Mr. Putin’s associates. In 2003, Mr. Khodorkovsky was arrested on the tarmac of an airport in Siberia. He has been in prison since then.
He was convicted of tax fraud in 2005, and his companies were essentially confiscated by the government.
His current sentence ends in 2011, which is just before Russia’s next presidential election. Analysts suggested that Mr. Putin did not want Mr. Khodorkovsky out of prison before then, which is why prosecutors brought fresh charges against him.
In the current case, he was accused of stealing $27 billion in oil from subsidiaries of his own oil conglomerate through pricing schemes. Mr. Khodorkovsky’s lawyers call the charges absurd, and politically motivated.