MOSCOW – Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin declared Thursday that former oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky is a proven criminal and "should sit in jail," a statement denounced as interference in the trial of a Kremlin foe whose case has come to symbolize the excesses of Putin's rule.
Putin's judgment gave ammunition to government opponents who claim Khodorkovsky is being persecuted by Putin and his allies.
Khodorkovsky is serving an eight-year sentence after being convicted of tax fraud and is awaiting a verdict in a second trial on charges of stealing oil from his own oil company that could keep him in prison for many more years.
Putin was in his first term as president when Khodorkovsky, then Russia's richest man, was arrested in 2003 after funding opposition parties in parliament and challenging Kremlin policies.
Khodorkovsky's lawyers and supporters said Putin's comments during his annual televised call-in show would put undue pressure on the judge as he deliberates and exposed Putin's role as a driving force behind the seven-year legal onslaught.
One of his lawyers, Karinna Moskalenko, said Putin's statements indicate that the judge will find Khodorkovsky guilty.
In addition to saying Khodorkovsky was guilty of economic crimes, Putin once again suggested the former oligarch had ordered the killings of people who stood in his way as he turned Yukos into Russia's largest oil company. Khodorkovsky, whose oil company was taken over by the state, has not been charged with any violent crime.
Putin reminded television viewers that the former Yukos security chief was convicted of involvement in several killings.
"What? Did the security service chief commit all these crimes on his own, at his own discretion?" he said.
Putin said Khodorkovsky's present punishment was "more liberal" than the 150-year prison sentence handed down in the U.S. to disgraced financier Bernard Madoff, who cheated thousands of investors with losses estimated at around $20 billion.
"Everything looks much more liberal here," Putin said. "Nevertheless, we should presume that Mr. Khodorkovsky's crimes have been proven."
Speaking to reporters afterward, Putin said he had been referring to the conviction in the first case, a distinction he did not make during the televised show.
He insisted the second case would be considered objectively by the court, but said it involved even higher monetary damages than the first case, implying no leniency should be shown.
"I believe that a thief should sit in jail," Putin said.
With more than a touch of sarcasm, Khodorkovsky's lead lawyer, Vadim Klyuvgant, thanked Putin for speaking his mind "because it directly and clearly answers the question of who, with what aims and with what power is putting pressure on the court as the judge is deliberating."
Judge Viktor Danilkin is scheduled to begin reading the verdict on Dec. 27.
If convicted, Khodorkovsky and his partner Platon Lebedev face prison sentences of up to 14 years, which could keep them in prison until at least 2017.
Putin 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.
The case has been seen as a test for President Dmitry Medvedev, who has promised to establish independent courts and strengthen the rule of law in Russia.
Associated Press writer Nataliya Vasilyeva contributed to this report.