MOSCOW -- Fifty-five prominent Russian public figures have protested what they describe as pressure on the courts by supporters of jailed former Russian oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky during his trial last year, RFE/RL's Russian Service reports.
Khodorkovsky was found guilty in December of stealing billions of dollars of oil from his former company, Yukos, and laundering the proceeds. This second conviction -- following an earlier one for tax evasion -- means he will remain in jail through 2017.
An assistant to judge Viktor Danilkin, who sentenced Khodorkovsky and his former associate Platon Lebedev, said in an interview last month that senior officials had pressured Danilkin into passing such a draconian sentence. Human rights activists and opposition groups have also condemned the verdict as politically motivated.
But in an open letter made public on March 3, prominent figures accuse Khodorkovsky's supporters of manipulating public opinion, writing that Russian society has been dragged into a campaign to discredit the judicial system.
"It is senseless and dangerous to try to reform the judicial system in Russia by means of pressure on the part of institutions and individuals, who are in conflict with the law," the letter says.
Among the signatories are TV anchor Tina Kandelaki, national gymnastics team coach Irina Viner, prominent Soviet and Russian ice hockey veteran and State Duma deputy Vladislav Tretyak, actors Askold and Edgar Zapashny, rock singer Nikolai Rastorguyev, and Anatoly Kucherena and Yosif Diskin, members of the Public Chamber, a state advisory body.
Yury Shmidt, a prominent rights lawyer who is a member of Khodorkovsky's defense team, told RFE/RL that the open letter was commissioned by the authorities and constituted "another attempt to try to salvage appearances."
"The letter claims some sort of objectivity but it is obviously targeted against Khodorkovsky," Shmidt said. "And although it was initiated by Denis Dvornikov, I think the person behind it is [the Kremlin's chief ideologue, Vladislav] Surkov, who can just blink an eye tomorrow and arrange another 50 such letters with 550 signatures if he wants to."
Shmidt said that he agrees that attempts should not be made to discredit the judicial system, "but the problem is that the judicial system [in Russia] discredits itself and allows the authorities to discredit it, and at the end of the day we have a situation where the judicial system has become a part of the power vertical and lost its independence," Shmidt told RFE/RL.Read more in Russian here