Nevzlin Sentenced To Life In Prison

The Moscow City Court on Friday convicted former Yukos co-owner Leonid Nevzlin on several counts of conspiracy to commit murder and sentenced him to life in prison, though the businessman was absent from the trial.

Judge Valery Novikov found Nevzlin guilty of organizing five murders, including the 1998 killings of Vladimir Petukhov, the mayor of Nefteyugansk, and of Valentina Korneyeva, the director of trading firm Feniks.

Alexei Pichugin, Yukos' former security chief who was jailed for life last August on charges of involvement in the same murders, was acting on Nevzlin's orders when he organized the slayings, Novikov said in his verdict.

Nevzlin, who fled to Israel in 2003, has repeatedly dismissed the charges as baseless and politically motivated. His press service issued a statement Friday claiming that the verdict "was dictated in advance by the Kremlin."

"Just as in Stalin's time, the goal of the Kremlin is to destroy its opponents by criminalizing them with false allegations," the statement said.

Eric Wolf, Nevzlin's Israeli spokesman, said in a statement that they would appeal the decision. "But we do not expect the Supreme Court to reconsider the verdict," Wolf said, adding that they would take the case all the way to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.

Nevzlin's lawyer, Dmitry Kharitonov, told reporters that the verdict was "all convenient conjecture."

Prosecutor Alexander Koblyakov said he was pleased with the decision. "Nevzlin got what we asked for, which was what he deserved," Koblyakov said after the sentencing.

Friday's verdict and sentencing were predictably dry for a trial in absentia. The signature glass courtroom cage for defendants was empty, while Kharitonov was visibly bored, sitting at a barren defense table.

After issuing his verdict, Novikov spent five hours recapping the evidence for each charge. He said it had cost Yukos $150,000 to have Petukhov, the Nefteyugansk mayor, killed.

Petukhov had accused Yukos of grossly underpaying taxes. In the weeks before he was gunned down on a Nefteyugansk street on his way to work, he had taken his case to then-President Boris Yeltsin. Korneyeva, the slain businesswoman, had refused to sell her downtown Moscow office to Bank Menatep, Yukos' holding company, prosecutors said.

Novikov ordered Nevzlin to pay 5.5 million rubles ($235,000) in compensation to the victims.

"I'm not interested in money," said Farida Islamova, the only relative of the victims present at the verdict. "I only want justice and for 10 years have known that [former Yukos CEO Mikhail] Khodorkovsky and Nevzlin murdered my husband."

Yukos, formerly the country's biggest oil company, was forced into bankruptcy in 2006 by a slew of what many viewed as politically motivated multibillion-dollar back tax charges. Khodorkovsky and Platon Lebedev, another former Yukos shareholder, are currently serving jail sentences of eight years on tax and fraud charges.

Dozens of the company's managers fled abroad amid the fallout of the affair. Britain has rejected Russian requests to extradite several Yukos executives, including Alexander Temerko, a former senior vice president.

Russia has repeatedly called for Nevzlin's extradition from Israel and has placed him on an Interpol wanted list. Israel has turned down the requests, citing a lack of evidence.

In May, Israel's Supreme Court upheld Nevzlin's citizenship and ruled that the Russian charges are groundless, according to a copy of the ruling obtained by The Moscow Times.

Koblyakov, the prosecutor, said after the sentencing, however, that given negotiations with the Israeli government, there is still a chance that Nevzlin could serve out his life sentence in Israel.

In December, the Prosecutor General's Office said it was also investigating a possible connection of Yukos executives, including Nevzlin, to the murder of Alexander Litvinenko, the former Russian security service agent who was killed by radiation poisoning in London in 2006. Weeks before his death, Litvinenko had met with Nevzlin in Israel.

Britain has accused former KGB officer Andrei Lugovoi of murdering Litvinenko and called for his extradition, a demand that prompted a chill in the countries' diplomatic relations.