MOSCOW (AP) — Europe's top human rights court on Thursday dismissed claims that Russian tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky was prosecuted for political reasons, but said that some procedures during a trial against him were unfair.
The Strasboug-based European Court of Human Rights also said in its ruling Thursday that Russia unfairly charged Khodorkovsky huge tax arrears, and that Russian authorities unfairly sent him and Lebedev to far-away penal colonies in eastern Siberia to serve their sentences, thousands of miles from their families in Moscow.
The court said that "it was hardly conceivable that there were no free places for the two applicants in any of the many colonies situated closer to Moscow."
Russia's Justice Ministry said the court's finding of unfair treatment could lead to the annulment of the 2005 verdict and a new criminal probe. Such a move, however, would be unlikely to set Khodorkovsky and his business partner Platon Lebedev free, as they since have been convicted again in a second trial.
Khodorkovsky, once Russia's richest man, was convicted in 2005 for evading taxes and sentenced to nine years in prison. In a second trial that concluded in December 2010, he and his business partner Lebedev were convicted of stealing oil from their own Yukos oil company and laundering the proceeds and sentenced to 13 years in prison to run concurrently with their previous conviction.
Khodorkovsky is due for release in October 2014, after an appeals court commuted his sentence by two years.
The case against Khodorkovsky is widely seen as President Vladimir Putin's punishment for the tycoon's political ambitions and his support for the opposition. Khodorkovsky had funded political parties and civil society initiatives widely seen as challenging the Kremlin.
The court ordered the Russian government to pay 10,000 euros ($13,246) to Khodorkovsky, a very small sum compared to the billions of dollars he and his partner lost since his arrest a decade ago.
The court, however, found no proof that the case was politically driven, saying that although "the court was prepared to admit that some government officials had their own reasons to push" for Khodorkovsky's conviction, "it was insufficient to conclude that the applicants would not have been convicted otherwise."
The court also dismissed a claim that the trial was unfair but found violations in what it described as "unfair taking and examination of evidence" by the Moscow court, and for breaching of lawyer-client confidentiality.
Lyudmila Alexeyeva, Russia's veteran human rights activist, was disappointed by the court's finding that the trail was not politically motivated.
"You have to be blind not to see that the prosecution of Khodorkovsky and Lebedev was political," said Alexeyeva who has petitioned for the two men's acquittal for years.
But Khodorkovsky's lawyer Karinna Moskalenko told The Associated Press that she was "very pleased" with the ruling and would not appeal it.
"The entire trial was unfair," she said. "This (ruling) should trigger the conviction to be annulled in accordance with the Russian legislation."
Russia's Justice Ministry said in a statement carried by Russian news agencies that the court's ruling could lead to the abrogation of the verdict and a new criminal investigation. The ministry didn't give any further details.
The Strasbourg court is a place of last recourse for people who feel their own legal systems are abusive. It has been used primarily by former Soviet bloc countries. The rulings of the court's Grand Chamber are binding on all members of the Council of Europe, the continent's human rights watchdog. Russia is one of its members.
Khodorkovsky's company Yukos, a major Russian taxpayer whose primary subsidiary once produced as much oil as all of Libya, was dismantled by Russian authorities after Khodorkovsky's arrest in 2003.
In an earlier ruling in 2011, the European court found that Russia violated the rights of Yukos, but rejected a contention that the prosecution of Yukos was politically motivated. In that ruling, the court said Russian authorities were unfair in meting out punishment to the company over tax violations and didn't give Yukos enough time to prepare its defense.
The German government's human rights commissioner, Markus Loening, said the court had found that Khodorkovsky and Lebedev "were not able to enjoy their rights as defendants, so both should be released immediately."
Loening noted in a statement that the ruling faulted proceedings in 2004 and 2005, but "the countless current proceedings against dissidents show that the situation of the state of law unfortunately has not improved since then."
Associated Press writer Angela Charlton in Paris, Geir Moulson in Berlin and Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow contributed to this report.