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Russian president appeals for restraint in discourse on oil tycoon case

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By Nataliya Vasilyeva
Friday, December 24, 2010; 5:28 PM

MOSCOW - Russian President Dmitry Medvedev urged officials Friday to refrain from commenting on the case of jailed oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky before a court rules in his latest trial.

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Medvedev's comments, his latest effort to try to improve the rule of law in Russia, came a week after Prime Minister Vladimir Putin compared Khodorkovsky to Bernard Madoff, the U.S. financier who defrauded investors out of an estimated $20 billion. Putin said Khodorkovsky, once Russia's richest man, deserves no leniency - a statement widely denounced as interfering in the judicial proceedings.

"Neither the president nor any other state official has the right to comment on this particular case before the verdict is passed," Medvedev said in a live interview with Russia's state TV stations.

Khodorkovsky was convicted of underpaying taxes on the profits from his Yukos oil company and is serving an eight-year sentence. His case has been widely seen as punishment for daring to challenge the Kremlin's political and economic power during Putin's presidency, in part by funding opposition parties in parliament.

Khodorkovsky is now facing a second trial on charges of embezzling $25 billion worth of oil. A judge is to begin delivering the long-awaited verdict on that case Monday.

Medvedev, who has promised to establish independent courts and strengthen the rule of law in Russia, insisted that he saw no evidence to support claims that prosecutors were selective in applying the law and were punishing the tycoon for common business practices.

If convicted, Khodorkovsky faces prison sentences of up to 14 years, which could keep him in jail until at least 2017.

Putin has remained Russia's No. 1 leader even after he shifted into the prime minister's seat following eight years as president. He has not ruled out a return to the presidency in 2012, and critics suspect him of wanting to keep Khodorkovsky incarcerated until after the election.

Khodorkovsky published an opinion piece in the daily Nezavisimaya Gazeta on Friday that contained a harsh criticism of Putin. He blamed Putin's policies for encouraging the xenophobia that has spilled into violent riots by racist hooligans in Moscow earlier this month.

A recent opinion poll showed that no more than 4 percent of Russians believe that there will be a "not guilty" verdict in Khodorkovsky's case.

- Associated Press

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