Moscow City Court sentences former Yukos security officer Pichugin to life in prison for murders

The Moscow City Court sentenced the former Yukos oil company top security officer Alexei Pichugin to life in prison Monday, ruling he was involved in several murders.

The new conviction of Alexei Pichugin is expected to lend momentum to prosecutors' efforts to try Leonid Nevzlin, a Russian businessman connected with Yukos founder Mikhail Khodorkovsky. Nevzlin now lives in self-imposed exile in Israel.

Pichugin had been sentenced last year to 24 years in prison on the same charges, but prosecutors had appealed for a life sentence and Russia's highest court had ordered a retrial.

The Moscow City Court on Monday ruled that Pichugin was guilty of organizing three murders and four attempted murders, court spokeswoman Anna Usacheva said.

Pichugin, the former head of Yukos security service, has insisted he is innocent.

"The sentence is not just. All the evidence has been turned on its head," defense lawyer Georgy Kaganer said in televised comments.

Pichugin's arrest in 2003 had marked the launch of the government's politically charged campaign against Yukos and Khodorkovsky - once Russia's richest man.

The crackdown on Yukos that led to its partial renationalization and an eight-year prison sentence for Khodorkovsky was widely seen as a Kremlin drive to silence an opponent and strengthen control of the crucial oil sector.

During two previous trials, Pichugin was found guilty of organizing the killing in 2002 of a businessman from the southern city of Tambov and his wife, as well the 1998 killings of a businesswoman and the mayor of the oil-town of Nefteyugansk. He was also convicted of organizing attacks another businessman and plotting to kill a former Yukos employee.

Kamil Kashaev, an official with the Prosecutor General's office, said Pichugin's conviction would serve help prosecutors bring new charges against Nevzlin and demand his extradition from Israel.

"I think that this sentence will be the first step in the process of trying Nevzlin in absentia. The court established (Nevzlin's) participation in all instances connected with the murders and the murder-kidnappings organized by the convicted Pichugin," Kashaev was quoted as saying by ITAR-Tass.

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Author`s name Angela Antonova