Political prisoner or thief?

On Dec. 27, 2010, Russian business oligarch, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, and his business partner, Platon Lebedev, were charged with embezzlement and money laundering from Yukos Oil and were sentenced to seven years in a Siberian prison, in addition to the eight-year sentence they have currently been serving. Back in 2005, Khodorkovsky was convicted of both fraud and tax evasion and is presently serving his seventh year of that eight-year sentence. With the addition of his 2010 sentence, he is set for release in 2017.

There has been great controversy surrounding Khodorkovsky’s conviction, as supporters of Khodorkovsky view the former oil tycoon as a political prisoner, while others, such as the former president and current prime minister of Russia, Vladimir Putin, view Khodorkovsky as a thief. Though this conviction appears to be justice at work, under closer scrutiny there appear to be undertones of judicial corruption and political influence.

At the time of Khodorkovsky’s initial arrest, he was Russia’s wealthiest entrepreneur and known to be a proponent for political change by financially supporting opposition parties in the Russian parliament, controlled by Putin’s current administration. Statements made by Putin, comparing Khodorkovsky and disgraced U.S. pyramid scheme operator Bernie Madoff, are believed to have influenced the legal system to apply harsher sentencing for Khodorkovsky

The controversy lies within the fact that the punishment does not appear to fit the crime and it seems to be largely due to political motives. With Khodorkovsky imprisoned until 2017 opposing political parties could find it difficult to secure funding for the 2012 and 2016 elections, and as a result will find it much more difficult to be formidable competition for the current Russian administration.

These recent events have shed some light on the corruption and political influence in Russia’s judiciary.

The West — particularly the United States and members of the European Union — have voiced their concerns with the Khodorkovsky verdict. German Chancellor Angela Merkel said she was “disappointed” by the sentence, further stating: “The impression remains that political motives played a role in this trial.” The United States Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, issued a statement said that the verdict “[ . . . ] raises serious questions about selective prosecution — and about the rule of law being overshadowed by political considerations.” However, the Russian foreign ministry has denied suspicious behaviour and has refuted claims of unlawful actions on the part of the state, concluding that the accusations from the West are “groundless.” Finally, in attempt to put the accusations to bed, the Russian foreign ministry added “we expect everyone to mind his own business, both at home and in the international arena.”

As of Dec. 31, 2010, Khodorkovsky’s lawyers, who are also representing Lebedev, have launched an appeal against their prison sentence; the verdict is yet to be established.

The Khodorkovsky verdict is appears to be the product of political coercion in the courtroom. Khodorkovsky was convicted near the end of his initial sentence, which was a convenient means of keeping him out of the public during the upcoming elections. Ultimately, this is an indictment of the failure of the Russian judicial system. Russia must create a justice system where political interference doesn’t play a part in convictions.

Beth Daniel is a University of Manitoba student.