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Russia tycoon 'convicted of theft'

A judge has declared former oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky guilty of theft and money laundering charges in his second trial, Russian news agencies have reported.

The verdict is likely to keep Khodorkovsky, once Russia's richest man, behind bars for several more years.

Interfax and ITAR-Tass reported that the judge said in the opening pages of his verdict that Khodorkovsky and his business partner Platon Lebedev had been found guilty. Reading the full verdict and announcing the sentence is expected to take several days.

Khodorkovsky is nearing the end of an eight-year sentence after being convicted of tax fraud in a case seen as punishment for challenging Kremlin power. The conviction on charges of stealing all the oil his Yukos company produced between 1998 and 2003 and laundering the proceeds could keep him behind bars until at least 2017.

Vladimir Putin, who was president during Khodorkovsky's first trial and is now prime minister, has shown no sign of softening his attitude towards the former oligarch.

Mr Putin said earlier this month that Khodorkovsky was a proven criminal and "should sit in jail", a statement denounced as interference in the trial. Mr Putin has not ruled out a return to the presidency in 2012 and critics suspect him of wanting to keep Khodorkovsky incarcerated until after that election.

Numerous witnesses, including current and former government officials, testified during the 20-month trial that the charges against Khodorkovsky and Lebedev were improbable if not absurd.

Hundreds of Khodorkovsky supporters rallied outside the courthouse, holding signs saying "Freedom" and "Russia without Putin". Police detained some of them as they chanted "Freedom" and "Down with Putin".

In the courtroom, Judge Viktor Danilkin read the verdict in a monotonous low voice, drowned out at times by loud chants from outside. Khodorkovsky and Lebedev sat impassively in a glass cage. Khodorkovsky's elderly parents were in the room, his father Boris sitting with his head bowed.

Khodorkovsky's arrest in October 2003 and the subsequent state takeover of his Yukos oil company allowed the government to reassert control over the energy sector and tamed other wealthy businessmen, who have obediently followed Kremlin orders ever since. The Kremlin also consolidated its hold over political life. Soon after Khodorkovsky's arrest, parties that he had funded were shut out of parliament or sidelined.

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