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Russian Oil Tycoon Sentenced to Nine Years

MOSCOW (AP) _ A court declared oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky guilty of an array of charges Tuesday in a trial widely criticized as politically motivated, sentencing him to nine years in prison minus time served.

The declaration of guilt and sentence came in the 12th day of the laborious verdict-reading process in the most closely watched trial of post-Soviet Russia.

Khodorkovsky, the former head of the Yukos oil company and once estimated to be Russia's richest man, has already spent 583 days in jail, meaning he would serve about another 7 1/2 years in prison.

Khodorkovsky looked straight ahead as the sentence was read. In a statement later read outside the court by defense attorney Anton Drel, Khodorkovsky said he would not harshly criticize the judge, noting ``the pressure she has come under from the initiators of the case when preparing the verdict.''

``Judicial power has been turned into a blunt weapon of the authorities,'' he said in the statement.

His co-defendant Platon Lebedev, found guilty of the same charges and given the same sentence, said, ``There's not a sane person who can understand what you have said.'' The judge then read his sentence again.

Khodorkovsky and Lebedev also were ordered to pay more than 17 billion rubles ($615 million) in taxes and penalties.

Supporters have claimed that Khodorkovsky's trial was part of a Kremlin-driven campaign to punish him for funding opposition parties and to stifle his own political ambitions. The sentence would keep him in prison well past the 2008 presidential elections, when a successor to Vladimir Putin is to be chosen, and potentially during the 2012 elections as well.

Asked if she had expected the tough sentence, Khodorkovsky's mother Marina said ``Of course, I live in this country. ... I lost (hope) the day we elected Putin.''

A third defendant in the case, Andrei Krainov, was given a 5 1/2 year suspended sentence.

The court did not sentence them on a charge regarding Apatit, a fertilizer component company in which Khodorkovsky and Lebedev allegedly acquired a large stake by rigging a privatization auction. Although the court considered them guilty, the statue of limitations on the 1994 matter had expired, according to prosecutors.

Khodorkovsky's lawyers are expected to appeal a guilty verdict and sentence in the 10-day period allotted under Russian law. The Prosecutor-General's office, meanwhile, reiterated Tuesday that new criminal charges against Khodorkovsky are being prepared.

Khodorkovsky is one of the so-called oligarchs who became enormously wealthy during the murky post-Soviet privatization of state industries in the 1990s. Such tycoons are widely resented by ordinary Russians and demonstrators denouncing Khodorkovsky have been a daily fixture outside the courthouse during the weeks of verdict-reading.

But there have also been gatherings of Khodorkovsky supporters _ who say proceedings raised substantial doubt about Russia's commitment to rule of law.

The verdict ``shows that in Russia there is no independent court, in Russia there is only the all-powerful Prosecutor-General,'' liberal politician Irina Khakamada said.

Demonstrators' chants of ``Shame, shame!'' could be heard even inside the courtroom as the proceedings continued after the sentencing.

Concerns about Russia's observance of legal propriety and respect for shareholders' rights have spooked many foreign investors.

``It does make people concerned, leery about an environment they don't understand,'' U.S. Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez told Russian and U.S. business representatives in Moscow on Tuesday. ``Any time the business community sees something that impacts business and doesn't really understand why, then that's a setback because then businesses will not want to invest.''

Khodorkovsky, whose fortune was once estimated as high as $15 billion, has been in jail since his October 2003 arrest when special forces stormed his private plane as it sat on the tarmac at a Siberian airport.

A liberal member of parliament, Vladimir Ryzhkov, suggested Monday that Khodorkovsky's legal team consider filing an appeal with the European Court of Human Rights, ``which will make a decision on the basis of common sense and law,'' the Interfax news agency reported.

``This verdict is a tragic example of the authorities turning a legal system against an individual for political ends,'' said Yukos spokesman Alexander Shadrin.

Parallel to Khodorkovsky's trial, Yukos has been battered by some $28 billion in back taxes claims. The company's main production unit was sold off by the state to meet some of the tax arrears, in a murky auction in which the unit was bought by a shell company and then acquired by a state-controlled oil company.

Yukos announced shortly after the verdict and sentencing of Khodorkovsky that it had filed a court challenge to the production unit's sale and would seek 324 billion rubles ($11.6 billion) in damages.
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