Administration 'troubled' by Russian conviction, suggests 'abusive use' of law

The Obama administration on Monday said it was "troubled" by the conviction of one-time Russian oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky in his second trial and suggested an "abusive use" of that country's legal system.

The judge's conviction of Khodorkovsky, once Russia’s richest man and a potential political threat to the Kremlin, on embezzlement and money laundering charges was widely expected. And it prompted immediate criticism from some human rights groups and the U.S., which suggested the trial was politically motivated.

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“Today's conviction in the second trial of Mikhail Khodorkovsky and [former business associate] Platon Lebedev on charges of embezzlement and money laundering raises serious questions about selective prosecution — and about the rule of law being overshadowed by political considerations,” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in a statement. “This and similar cases have a negative impact on Russia’s reputation for fulfilling its international human rights obligations and improving its investment climate."

White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said the U.S. is concerned by allegations of "serious due process violations" and "what appears to be an abusive use of the legal system for improper ends."

"The apparent selective application of the law to these individuals undermines Russia’s reputation as a country committed to deepening the rule of law," Gibbs said in an afternoon statement. "The Russian government cannot nurture a modern economy without also developing an independent judiciary that serves as an instrument for furthering economic growth, ensuring equal treatment under the law, and advancing justice in a predictable and fair way.

Khodorkovsky has been in jail for seven years after being arrested and convicted of tax fraud, a fate generally believed to be punishment for having challenged former president and now Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s hold on power. 

Putin, speaking recently before the new verdict was handed down, said he considers Khodorkovsky a “thief” who should “sit in jail.” Lawyers for Khodorkovsky accused Putin of trying to influence the judge.

Amnesty International, in a statement Monday, called the trial unfair.

"The Russian authorities' consistent disregard for due process in this trial only strengthens the impression that this second round of convictions has been politically motivated," said Nicola Duckworth, the group's director for Europe and Central Asia. "All evidence points to a pattern of political motives and interference having obstructed justice in this case. The Moscow City Court must overturn this unfair conviction, to restore faith in the independence of Russia's legal system."

The judge did not immediately issue a sentence. Khodorkovsky's current sentence will keep him in jail into next year.

Clinton said the U.S. would monitor the appeals process.

This story was first posted at 11:46 a.m.