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Khodorkovsky turns 50 in Russian jail with hope diminishing

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(Globalpost/GlobalPost)

Russia's former richest man Mikhail Khodorkovsky on Wednesday celebrated his 50th birthday behind the walls of a remote prison, fearing he may not ever again taste freedom after spending the last decade in jail on charges supporters say were ordered by the Kremlin.

Khodorkovsky is spending his birthday in prison colony number 7 in the town of Segezha in the northern region of Karelia where he was transferred in 2011 following a conviction in his second trial.

According to his lawyer Vadim Klyuvgant, Khodorkovsky will mark the birthday modestly by taking tea with his co-detainees before having a meeting with his family later in the week.

"A person who has remained free despite being in prison," said the opposition Novaya Gazeta newspaper on its front page, praising "the will of Mikhail Khodorkovsky".

A small scale protest against his incarceration was held in Moscow Wednesday to mark the birthday but his cause is not yet inspiring the Russian opposition to President Vladimir Putin.

After being twice convicted of financial crimes in 2005 and 2010 following his dramatic arrest at a Siberian airport in 2003, the former boss of the Yukos oil giant is currently due for release in October 2014.

But Khodorkovsky himself is not expecting to walk through the prison gates to liberty anytime soon.

"I doubt, to say the least, that there is a possibility of me being released," he told the New Times weekly in an interview to mark his birthday.

Asked about Khodorkovsky's case in 2010, Putin infamously declared: "A thief should be in prison." The Russian strongman unveiled an amnesty for white collar criminals last week but analysts doubt it will touch Khodorkovsky and his co-accused Platon Lebedev.

So far Khodorkovsky is not subject to charges that could lead to a third trial and further imprisonment. However Russian officials and state media have also not been shy of mentioning threats still hanging over him.

As if to make the point, pro-Kremlin NTV television on Monday night broadcast one of its notorious hatchet documentaries accusing Khodorkovsky of involvement in the 1998 murder of the mayor of the Siberian town of Nefteyugansk.

Meanwhile the "Yukos affair" continues to echo ominously with several members of an expert panel who concluded that the 2010 conviction was false, complaining of harassment by the authorities.

At the end of May it emerged that one of Russia's most respected economists Sergei Guriyev, who served on the panel, had left the country for good as he feared arrest.

The number of Russians supporting Khodorkovsky's early release has doubled in six years but is still relatively modest: 33 percent support him being allowed out now, with 16 percent against, according to a survey by the independent Levada Centre.

Khodorkovsky's supporters have long argued he is innocent of the financial crimes for which he was charged and claimed they were ordered by the Kremlin to eliminate a potentially dangerous political opponent.

At the time of his arrest, Khodorkovsky was openly financing opposition parties and was said to have made a particular enemy in the shape of Putin's powerful right hand man on energy issues Igor Sechin.

"As long as Putin is in power, Khodorkovsky is going to stay in prison," said former chess champion turned anti-Kremlin campaigner Garry Kasparov who is himself staying out of Russia for fear of arrest.

Leading opposition figure Boris Nemtsov said he believed the "Kremlin is preparing for a new trial because it fears Khodorkovsky more than it fears Al-Qaeda."

Khodorkovsky told the New Times he had become accustomed to life in prison after his decade behind bars even though "I fear I would have shot myself" if someone had told him in 2010 that this would be his fate.

"Getting used to prison means not suffering because you cannot be alone, walk in the forest or down the street and because you have to obey the most extreme orders," he said.

"I just cannot get used to being apart from my family."

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http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/afp/130626/khodorkovsky-turns-50-russian-jail-hope-diminishing