The European Court of Human Rights has found Russian authorities guilty of violating the rights of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, but ruled it had no proof the former oil tycoon's jailing on fraud and tax-evasion charges was politically motivated.
Once Russia's richest man, Khodorkovsky was detained in 2003 in a case critics saw as retribution for his political ambitions and stinging criticism of then-President Vladimir Putin.
The Strasbourg-based court ordered Russia to pay Khodorkovsky 24,000 euros ($35,000) in court costs and damages for rights violations, including being held in "degrading" and "humiliating" conditions. It also deemed his arrest unlawful.
Khodorkovsky's lawyers hailed the ruling as a victory in his protracted battle with the Russian government.
"We had been waiting for this day for seven years," lawyer Karinna Moskalenko told reporters. "Today we are satisfied. Today we welcome this judgment of the European Court."
Fraud, Tax Evasion
The 47-year-old Khodorkovsky and his business partner Platon Lebedev are currently serving lengthy prison sentences on charges of fraud and tax evasion. Their jail term was extended to 2017 in a second trial for embezzlement and money laundering in December, and a Moscow court upheld their conviction last week. The court, however, reduced the sentences by a year to a total of 13 years.
Both have repeatedly denied wrongdoing.
Today's ruling refers to an application filed in connection with his detention and first trial and is the first of four complaints submitted by Khodorkovsky to the court.
Khodorkovsky was initially detained on grounds that he had failed to appear as a witness in a criminal case. But judges in Strasbourg said the fact that Russian investigators presented him with a 35-page charge sheet within hours suggested they had been "prepared for such a development" and "had wanted Khodorkovsky as a defendant" rather than a simple witness.
The judges also condemned the Russian authorities for extending his pretrial detention twice without justification.
Not Enough Proof
The court, however, rejected Khodorkovsky's claim that the legal onslaught against him is politically motivated.
It agreed the case "might raise some suspicion" over the government's motives to prosecute him but stressed that "claims of political motivation behind prosecution required incontestable proof, which had not been presented."
Lyudmila Alekseyeva, a veteran Russian rights activist, voiced disappointment at the court's decision not to recognize the trial as political.
The ruling comes just days after Amnesty International declared Khodorkovsky and Lebedev prisoners of conscience
in connection with their second trial and conviction.
But lawyers for Khodorkovsky sought to downplay the setback.
"When a court -- whether it is the Strasbourg court, the U.S. Supreme Court, or any other national court -- finds serious and repeated breaches of fundamental rights," lawyer David Pannick said, "that is a major victory for the claimant and a major defeat for the government, whether or not the court also attributes -- as it very rarely does -- a bad-faith motive to that government,"
The ruling does not mean investigators will revisit Khodorkovsky's conviction. A similar decision in which the European Court in 2007 ruled Lebedev's arrest illegal had not affected his terms of confinement.
Today's ruling nonetheless fuels hope that his request for parole will be granted.
His lawyers announced late on May 30 that Khodorkovsky and Lebedev had filed for parole, for which they are technically eligible having served more than half their prison sentences.
While Putin, who is now prime minister, has hinted the former tycoon could face fresh charges, President Dmitry Medvedev said earlier this month that Khodorkovsky posed "absolutely no danger to society" if released.