UPDATE 4-Harsh US words for Russia, but little impact on ties

Thu Dec 30, 2010 10:44pm GMT

* US official says sentence could hurt Russia at WTO

* State Dept calls it an "abusive use of the legal system"

* But not seen hindering US-Russian relations (Updates with analyst comment, Jackson-Vanik background)

By Arshad Mohammed and Ross Colvin

WASHINGTON, Dec 30 (Reuters) - The United States suggested on Thursday that an extended prison term for Russian former tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky was an abuse of justice, and a senior U.S. official said it may impede Russia's entry to the World Trade Organization.

Despite the harsh U.S. words, analysts said the treatment of Khodorkovsky and his co-defendant, Platon Lebedev, was unlikely to undercut a White House effort to work with the Kremlin where it can on strategic and security issues.

A Russian judge ordered Khodorkovsky jailed until 2017 after being convicted of theft and money-laundering. The case was seen in the West as a test of the rule of law in Russia and by many analysts as a political vendetta against an adversary of Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.

Once Russia's richest man and head of Yukos, a now defunct major oil company, Khodorkovsky is in the final year of an eight-year sentence imposed after a politically charged fraud and tax evasion trial during Putin's 2000-2008 presidency.

In the latest trial, prosecutors said he and Lebedev stole nearly $30 billion in oil from Yukos subsidiaries through price mechanisms and laundered some of this. Khodorkovsky's lawyers called the charges an absurd pretext to keep him in jail.   Continued...

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