Former Yukos executive sentenced to 20 years for murder

A former executive of the beleaguered Yukos oil giant was sentenced to 20 years in jail Wednesday for murder, as the trial of the founder of the company, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, draws to a close.

A Moscow City Court jury had found Alexei Pichugin, a former top Yukos security officer, guilty of organizing a double murder in 2002 as well as an attack on the head of the Moscow mayor's communication service. Prosecutors had originally requested that Pichugin be given a life sentence, but NTV television reported that his jail term was reduced after he cooperated with investigators.

Pichugin's prison term will be counted from his arrest in July 2003, the Interfax news agency reported.

The defendant and his legal team have dismissed the charges as part of a Kremlin-instigated crackdown on Yukos, and argue that the closed trial has been rife with violations.

Members of Pichugin's legal team could not be immediately reached Wednesday. His lawyers, who had denounced the guilty verdict as unfair and politically driven, have said they would appeal the ruling.

Khodorkovsky has been in jail since October 2003, facing trial on fraud and tax-evasion charges. On Tuesday prosecutors demanded the maximum 10-year sentence for Khodorkovsky and his co-defendant Platon Lebedev, another major shareholder in Yukos.

The company, once the largest Russian oil producer, has been dismantled to pay off a staggering US$28 billion (€21 billion) tax bill.

The attack on Yukos is widely seen as the Kremlin's effort to establish control over strategic energy assets and punish Khodorkovsky for his perceived political ambitions. President Vladimir Putin has repeatedly contended that the investigations of Khodorkovsky and Yukos targeted a rotten business empire and its owners.

Moscow's Meshchansky Court, where Khodorkovsky is facing trial, is expected to deliver a verdict within a matter of weeks.

Also Wednesday, tax authorities demanded 18 billion rubles (US$647 million, €499 million) from Khodorkovsky and Lebedev in unpaid taxes.

Alexandra Nagornaya, the representative for Russia's Federal Tax Service, argued before the court that the pair had used front companies registered in onshore tax havens to dodge taxes as well as illegally using promissory notes to pay tax bills.

"Organizations controlled by Khodorkovsky were created with a single goal - to illegally use tax benefits," Nagornaya was reported by the ITAR-Tass news agency as saying.

The tax official argued that the companies failed to carry out the necessary investments in the local economy to qualify for the tax breaks, and had no business presence in the territories in question.

Associated Press

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