A Moscow judge ignored pleas for leniency yesterday and handed Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the former oil tycoon, a 14-year prison sentence for embezzlement.
Judge Victor Danilkin gave the former head of the oil group Yukos exactly what the prosecution had asked for. The sentence will be counted from Mr Khodorkovsky's 2003 arrest, meaning that he and his business partner, Platon Lebedev, could be released in 2017.
Defence lawyers immediately blamed Vladimir Putin, the Russian prime minister, for the harsh sentence. Mr Putin, who as president turned against Mr Khodorkovsky, said in a reference to the former oligarch that “thieves should sit in jail”. The remarks were made before sentencing.
In a statement read out by his lawyer, Mr Khodorkovsky said: “You cannot count on the courts to protect you from the whim of bureaucrats in Russia.”
International reaction was again damning. Mr Khodorkovsky is widely viewed as a political prisoner and symbol of a corrupt Russian judicial system.
Mr Khodorkovsky and Mr Lebedev were found guilty of embezzling more than £16.3bn of oil from Yukos between 1998 and 2003 and laundering the proceeds.
During the 22-month trial, the defence called serving and former ministers who testified that stealing such a vast amount of oil would have been impossible. But in his summing up, the judge said the testimony indicated the defendants' guilt.