Khodorkovsky's judge says sentence not harsh

A Russian judge who sentenced Mikhail Khodorkovsky to 14 years in jail said Thursday that the tycoon's punishment could have been worse.

Judge Viktor Danilkin extended Khodorkovsky's current prison term through 2017 after finding Khodorkovsky guilty in December of stealing more than $25 billion worth of oil from three subsidiaries of Yukos, his former oil company.

The embezzlement and money laundering charges against Khodorkovsky and his business partner Platon Lebedev "allowed a sentence harsher than 14 years" in jail, Danilkin said in televised remarks.

"I would not call the sentence harsh," he said.

His assistant claimed Monday that the verdict was imposed upon Danilkin when it became clear his own ruling would not please top Russian officials behind the politically driven case.

Danilkin denied that he was under pressure and accused the assistant, Natalya Vasilyeva, of slander. He said, however, that he would not file charges against her until Khodorkovsky's sentence is appealed.

Vasilyeva's claim appeared to be a public acknowledgment of what many observers of the trial had already assumed.

During the 20-month trial, Danilkin had given the impression that he was seriously considering the merits of the case and often joined the defense lawyers and audience in laughing at the prosecutors' gaffes. He treated Khodorkovsky with respect and allowed current and former government officials to testify in his defense.

But when he began reading the verdict — a summary of the trial that took him four days to get through — it was immediately clear that whatever hopes there had been for leniency were gone. He rarely raised his eyes while speed reading through the hundreds of pages.

During a televised interview, Danilkin denied he was under pressure and insisted that he had written the sentence.

"I signed the sentence, I announced it, and I will bear responsibility for this sentence until the end of my days," he said.

Once Russia's richest man, Khodorkovsky has been imprisoned since 2003. Both his convictions are politically tinged, with critics saying the tycoon was singled out by the Kremlin and falsely charged to punish him for funding opposition parties and for his own political ambitions.