* Court finds rights violations in case, orders damages
* Case has raised concerns about rule of law in Russia
(Adds Russian reaction throughout)
By Gilbert Reilhac
STRASBOURG, France, May 31 (Reuters) - Europe’s human rights court ruled on Tuesday that Russia violated the rights of former oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky during his arrest and jailing, but found no firm proof the case was politically motivated.
The European Court of Human Rights ordered Moscow to pay him 24,500 euros ($35,300) in compensation for violations linked to his 2003 arrest and jailing on charges of fraud and tax evasion after he fell out with then-President Vladimir Putin.
The ruling fell short of what Khodorkovsky sought — vindication of his stance that he is political prisoner — but his lawyers hailed it as a victory anyway and said he had no plans to appeal.
Khodorkovsky, 47, built up a fortune after the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991 as head of oil firm Yukos, but ran afoul of Putin after airing corruption allegations, challenging state control over oil exports and funding opposition parties.
Many Western governments and business leaders say his case raises doubts about Russia’s commitment to the rule of law. The United States said last week such selective application of the law would hold back Russian economic growth.
“I am disappointed in the European Court,” prominent Russian rights worker Lyudmila Alexeyeva told the Interfax news agency. But other activists said the decision was an important step and the first in a series of pending cases with the Strasbourg-based court toward redressing Khodorkovsky’s grievances.
Lawyer Lord David Pannick said the European court ruling “was a major victory for the claimant and a major defeat for the government whether or not the court attributes — as it very rarely does — a bad faith motive to that government.”
The Strasbourg-based court ruled: “Khodorkovsky’s case might raise some suspicion as to what the real intent of the Russian authorities might have been for prosecuting him, (but) claims of political motivation behind prosecution required incontestable proof, which had not been presented.”
Russia’s representative in the European court, Georgy Matyushkin, told Interfax that Moscow would appeal against the ruling in three months if it found reason to do so.
After the initial conviction in 2005, Khodorkovsky was tried again and found guilty in December of stealing billions of dollars of oil from Yukos subsidiaries via price mechanisms and laundering some of the money.
He is sentenced to remain in jail until 2016.
The human rights court ruled that Khodorkovsky’s arrest at gunpoint, as he was about to board his plane at a Siberian airfield, was unlawful. He was initially taken in for questioning as a witness but within hours had become an accused and served with a 35-page charge sheet, the court said.
It also said that his detention had been extended without justification on two occasions and that there had been procedural flaws that had put Khodorkovsky at a disadvantage.
Defence lawyer Karinna Moskalenko said the European court required a very high burden of proof to rule a government had politically pressured its courts, and had only once done so.
The Council of Europe is charged with implementing the court’s decisions, which Russia is legally obliged to follow.
Khodorkovsky’s supporters say his trials were part of a Kremlin campaign to punish him for challenging Putin, keep him out of politics, ensure loyalty from other rich businessmen and tighten state control over Russia’s oil reserves.
Once Russia’s biggest oil producer, Yukos was bankrupted by back-tax claims after Khodorkovsky’s arrest and its assets were sold off, with its main production subsidiaries ending up in the hands of state-run Rosneft.
Khodorkovsky said on Monday he had asked for parole, despite an appeals court ruling upholding his conviction last week.
In a sign of a potential change in the Kremlin’s attitude, state-controlled television aired Khodorkovsky’s answers to a written interview in a prime-time broadcast at the weekend.
Putin criticised Khodorkovsky in December, saying “a thief must be in jail”. But President Dmitry Medvedev said this month Khodorkovsky’s release would not be dangerous for society.
Reporting by Gilbert Reilhac; Writing by Alissa de Carbonnel and Leigh Thomas; editing by Mark Heinrich