The European Court of Human Rights on Tuesday rejected the contention that the 2003 arrest of oil magnate Mikhail Khodorkovsky was politically motivated, dealing a setback to efforts of Khodorkovsky's supporters to portray him as a prisoner of conscience.
The Kremlin meanwhile sees the ruling as vindication following years of harsh international criticism over Russia's treatment of a powerful man once seen as a political threat to Vladimir Putin.
Khodorkovsky, who was Russia's richest person at the time of his arrest, had funded opposition parties and was seen as attempting to rival the dominance of then-President Putin. Supporters have contended his prosecution on charges of tax evasion and fraud was punishment for challenging the Kremlin.
The Strasbourg-based court said Khodorkovsky's lawyers did not present "incontestable proof" of political motivation in the case. However, it said the charges caused "reasonable suspicion," possibly leaving the door open for another appeal.
The court also ruled that Khodorkovsky's rights were violated during his arrest in 2003 and detention when he was held in cramped and unsanitary conditions among other things. Russia will now have to pay some euro24,000 ($35,000) in damages that Khodorkovsky's lawyers say will be sent to charity.
For the past eight years the Kremlin has been insisting that the oil magnate is being tried for economic crimes and that there is no politics involved in the case. On Tuesday, there was no formal reaction to the decision, but a highly placed official told The Associated Press that the Kremlin was satisfied with the ruling.
Khodorkovsky is due for release in 2016, but President Dmitry Medvedev said earlier this month that Khodorkovsky "poses absolutely no danger to society" if released early.
But Putin, who is now prime minister, has hinted that the oil tycoon might be looking for fresh charges, claiming on one occasion that Khodorkovsky have his hands in blood "up to the elbows." Putin's extensive and often emotional comments on the Khodorkovsky case raised doubts about his claims that Khodorkovsky's prosecution is all about economic crimes.
The court's ruling referred to Khodorkovsky's first trial that wrapped up in 2005 when he was found guilty of tax evasion and sentenced to nine years in prison, later reduced by one year. Most observers and fellow businessmen then tended to view it as an example of selective justice, saying that Khodorkovsky might have indeed used loopholes in the law to lower the tax burden, something that most Russian businesses were doing at that time.
In a second trial that concluded in December, Khodorkovsky and business partner Platon Lebedev were convicted of stealing from Khodorkovsky's now-liquidated Yukos oil company, and sentenced to 13 years in prison, to run concurrently with his previous conviction. Unlike the previous case, the second trial was largely viewed as a political reprisal against Khodorkovsky's former political ambitions and was widely criticized by rights groups and officials in the West. A Moscow appeals court upheld that conviction last week, though it reduced the sentences by a year. Amnesty International last week declared Khodorkovsky and Lebedev to be prisoners of conscience.
Khodorkovsky's lawyer Karinna Moskalenko said the evidence of the political motivation of Khodorkovsky's prosecution has "significantly increased" since the first application to the European court and that the defense team is hoping the court will uphold it in the applications that they are working on now.
The next claim up in the court contests a decision to send Khodorkovsky to serve his term in a Siberian jail. Russian law says a convict must be imprisoned in the region where he was convicted, unless there are no facilities available.
The European court's ruling leaves concerns about the rule of law in Russia unresolved. Also unclear is whether Khodorkovsky has any chance of success in his petition for early release, for which he is technically eligible having served more than half his sentence. As Khodorkovsky is now preparing for a parole hearing, Russian state television has started covering his case after years of keeping mum. State-controlled NTV last week aired the tycoon's speech in the courtroom in a prime time newscast and showed an eight-minute somewhat sympathetic story of his trial in a prime-time Sunday show.
Lawmaker Vladimir Kolesnikov, who pushed for the prosecution of Khodorkovsky in 2003 when he was deputy prosecutor general, told the Interfax news agency that he would welcome a decision to release the billionaire on parole.
Khodorkovsky was denied an early release in 2008 after a judge cited his refusal to take part in sewing classes in prison and other alleged misdemeanors.
Khodorkovsky was arrested when special forces officers stormed his plane on the runway of a Siberian airport. He had been summoned to be a witness in a criminal case and his detention was initially justified for having failed to appear. However, the European Court said, within hours of his detention he was presented with a lengthy list of criminal charges.
"The speed with which the investigating authorities had acted suggested they had been prepared for such a development and had wanted Mr. Khodorkovsky as a defendant and not as a simple witness. Therefore, his detention had been unlawful as it had been made with a purpose different from the one expressed," the court said.
Angela Charlton contributed to this report from Paris.