MOSCOW (Reuters) – A top manager of the now defunct YUKOS business empire was sentenced on Friday by a Russian court to life in prison for ordering a series of high profile murders, a verdict he dismissed as the result of a show trial organized by the Kremlin.
The Moscow city court found Leonid Nevzlin, one of YUKOS chief Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s closest advisers, guilty of organizing five murders including the killing of a local mayor where the oil firm’s biggest production unit was based.
“The court has decided that as Nevzlin poses a special threat to society he should serve life in a high security prison,” Judge Valery Novikov said.
The court also ruled that Nevzlin — who fled to Israel in 2003 — should pay 5.5 million roubles ($235,000) in compensation to the victims. He was also found guilty of three attempted murders.
Nevzlin was once a major shareholders in the YUKOS empire, which has been divided up and sold off by the Russian state to pay for huge back tax claims levied by the tax authorities.
Russia has asked Israel to extradite Nevzlin, who has repeatedly denied the charges. He said the court was acting out a show trial orchestrated by the Kremlin and he would appeal to the European Court of Human Rights.
Khodorkovsky, who is serving an eight-year jail term for tax evasion and fraud, says he was the victim of corrupt officials under former President Vladimir Putin who wanted to carve up his business empire and who feared his political ambitions.
NEVZLIN HITS BACK
“The decision of the court was written in advance by the Kremlin and there is no surprise in this decision,” Nevzlin said in a statement read out by his spokesman.
“This is a show trial managed under the supervision of the Kremlin and controlled by Putin and his gang. I intend to appeal to the European Court of Human Rights against this show trial that was held in Russia.”
The Moscow court said Nevzlin worked with YUKOS’s former head of security, Alexei Pichugin, to kill people who were hindering the interests of the YUKOS empire, which had major stakes in oil, banking and commodity trading.
The judge said Nevzlin and Pichugin, who was sentenced to 24 years in prison in 2006 for carrying out murders, had organized the 1998 murder of Valentina Korneyeva, who owned a building in central Moscow that YUKOS holding firm, MENATEP, wanted to buy.
The judge also said Nevzlin ordered the 1998 murder of Vladimir Petukhov, the mayor of the Siberian town of Nefteyugansk where YUKOS’s biggest oil production unit was based. The judge said the murder had cost YUKOS $150,000.
Prosecutors said Petukhov, who had fallen out with YUKOS and was demanding tax payments to the local budget, was shot dead on June 26, Khodorkovsky’s birthday. YUKOS officials said the timing of the murder it was intended to discredit YUKOS bosses.
The court’s decision is the latest chapter in the demise of the giant YUKOS-MENATEP empire, which amassed a fortune by buying state assets cheaply and trading commodities in the chaos following the fall of the Soviet Union.
But Khodorkovsky, once Russia’s richest man, fell foul of the Kremlin in 2003 and was arrested by the FSB security service at an airport in Siberia.
Putin, while still president, repeatedly said Khodorkovsky had committed serious crimes and must pay the penalty. Prosecutors have recently laid fresh charges against Khodorkovsky, including money laundering and embezzlement.
“Courts all over the world have ruled that Russia is a place of political persecution — courts in England, in Switzerland, in the Netherlands, in Israel — so the only place such a show trial can be held is in Russia,” Nevzlin said.