STRASBOURG, France (Reuters) - The European Court of Human Rights said on Tuesday it had found irregularities in the fraud case against Russian oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky and ordered Moscow to pay him 24,500 euros ($35,300) compensation.
The Strasbourg-based court said the case 'might raise some suspicion' over Russian authorities' intent in prosecuting him, but it had been presented with no evidence the fraud and tax evasion charges were politically motivated.
One of the tycoons who built fortunes after the Soviet Union's 1991 collapse, Khodorkovsky, 47, fell out with Vladimir Putin after airing corruption allegations, challenging state control over oil exports and funding opposition parties.
Many Western governments and business have come to see his case as raising serious doubts about Russia's commitment to the rule of law. Khodorkovsky's lawyers, who see the case as politically motivated, welcomed the ruling as a victory.
"It was a major victory for the claimant and a major defeat for the government whether or not the court attributes -- as it very rarely does -- a bad faith motive to that government," lawyer Lord David Pannick told reporters in a telephone briefing.
The court, in an initial ruling on a 2005 conviction, declared:
"Mr Khodorkovsky's case might raise some suspicion as to what the real intent of the Russian authorities might have been for prosecuting him, (but) claims of political motivation behind prosecution required incontestable proof, which had not been presented."
After a first conviction in 2005 on fraud and tax evasion charges, Khodorkovsky was found guilty in a different case last year of stealing billions of dollars of oil from Yukos subsidiaries through price mechanisms and laundering some of the money.
The human rights court ruled that Khodorkovsky had been unlawfully arrested because he was originally taken in for questioning as a witness but within hours had become an accused and served with a 35-page charge-sheet.
It also said that his detention had been extended without justification on two occasions and that there had been procedural flaws that had put Khodorkovsky at a disadvantage.
Khodorkovsky's supporters say his trials were part of a Kremlin campaign to punish him for challenges to Putin, keep him out of politics, ensure loyalty from other tycoons and tighten state control over Russia's oil reserves.
Once Russia's biggest oil producer, Yukos was bankrupted by back-tax claims after Khodorkovsky's arrest in 2003 and its assets sold off, with its main production subsidiaries ending up in the hands of state-run Rosneft.
(Editing by Ralph Boulton)
(Reporting by Gilbert Reilhac; Writing by Leigh Thomas)