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U.S. long concerned by Khodorkovsky trial, cables on WikiLeaks show

By Tim Lister, CNN
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Tycoon's trial draws demonstrations
  • Khodorkovsky was found guilty Monday of embezzlement
  • The former oil tycoon has been jailed since 2003
  • Most Russians are unaware of the proceedings against Khodorkovsky

(CNN) -- Russia has hit back at criticism by western governments of the guilty verdict against former oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky on embezzlement charges. But diplomatic cables obtained by the website WikiLeaks suggest the United States has long regarded Khodorkovsky's trial as part of a broader assault on the rule of law in Russia.

Following the verdict Monday, the White House criticized what it called the application of "selective justice" in Russia, prompting the Foreign Ministry in Moscow to fire back: "Attempts to exert pressure on the court are unacceptable."

A cable from the U.S. Embassy in Moscow from December last year published by WikiLeaks noted that prosecutors were going to great lengths "to place a 'rule of law' gloss on a politically motivated trial." But the same cable added: "Despite the case's wide implications, it continues to be a cause celebre only for foreigners and a minority of Russians."

Khodorkovsky has been in jail since 2003, and was first convicted in 2005 on charges of tax evasion and fraud.

But many critics say the case against him was politically motivated. Khodorkovsky -- once Russia's richest man as head of the Yukos oil firm -- had funded opposition parties and complained of corruption in the Kremlin.

Noting that legal procedures were being meticulously followed, the cable sent in December 2009 concluded that the trial was evidence of "a cynical system where political enemies are eliminated with impunity." It also referred to an informal compact between government and business oligarchs in Russia. "There is a widespread understanding that Khodorkovsky violated the tacit rules of the game: if you keep out of politics, you can line your pockets as much as you desire."

But it also says that Khodorkovsky's plight was of little interest to most Russians. "Given Khodorkovsky's former stature, one might expect a large amount of focus on the Yukos case inside Russia. However, most Russians continue to pay scant attention," with only one-third of those polled aware of the proceedings.

A Russian contact told the embassy that prosecutors had essentially repackaged the charges used to convict Khodorkovsky in 2005 in an attempt to keep him out of political circulation. In a redacted cable from 2007, the contact said prosecutors "were unsatisfied with Khodorkovsky's eight-year sentence and decided to bring new charges carrying potentially heavier sentences." The unnamed contact said the charges against him -- he was accused of buying oil at below-market prices from companies he controlled and then selling it at a huge profit -- were "without merit since this transfer pricing technique was not only legal but engaged in by thousands of firms."

The contact told then-Ambassador William J. Burns that while the charges were "without legal or evidentiary support... Khodorkovsky would likely remain in prison as long as the Putin administration is in power."

If the political pundits are right, that may be quite a long time. Current Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who has called Khodorkovsky a murderer and a thief, is widely expected to run for a third term as president in 2012. He served two consecutive four-year terms as president beginning in 2000.