Mikhael Khodorkovsky is awaiting the verdict in a second trial accused of stealing from his company [EPA]

Russia's prime minister has been accused of interfering in the judicial process after saying that a jailed Russian oligarch awaiting the verdict in a second trial should remain in prison.

Speaking during an annual televised question and answer session on Thursday, Vladimir Putin said of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who is already serving an eight-year jail sentence, that  "a thief must be in prison".

"We must operate based on the fact that Mr Khodorkovsky's guilt has been proven in court," he said.

Khodorkovsky, once Russia's richest man, was jailed in 2005 for fraud and is now waiting to hear whether he will be found guilty of the alleged theft of $27bn from his own Yukos company.

'No question'

An attorney for Khodorkovsky said Putin's comments meant that the court would probably convict the Yukos founder when it start reading its verdict in the second hearing on December 27.

Vadim Klyuvgant, the lead defence attorney, argued that Putin was violating the presumption of innocence clause, providing the perfect reason to contest any conviction in the European Court on Human Rights.

"Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin is saying that we should operate based on the fact that Khodorkovsky's guilt has been proven in court," he said.

"In the meantime, the judge is in the deliberation room - and this, of course, removes any question" that the defence might have had about the case, Klyuvgant said in a statement.

Putin compared Khodorkovsky to Bernie Madoff, a US financier who was jailed for investment fraud, and compared Russia's treatment of the Russian millionaire to that of the American.

"If we look at the practice of other countries, Mr Madoff - for a similar crime, and more or less the same amount of money - received a 150-year sentence. I think things look a lot more liberal here," he said.

Killing comments

Some of Putin's strongest comment concerned Khodorkovsky's alleged link to Alexei Pichugin, a security official handed a life sentence for the murder of three people including the mayor of the western Siberian town of Nefteyugansk.

"And in addition, you know this but I would like to repeat it, I am not talking about him personally, but I would remind you that the head of the Yukos security service is sitting [in jail] for murder. You see, he didn't like the mayor of Nefteyugansk," Putin said.

"There was a woman in Moscow who did give them a small property they wanted to take - they killed her. The killer that was hired - they killed him.

"What, did the head of the security service commit all these crimes on his own - on his own initiative?"

The charge sheet against Khodorkovsky does not make any accusations over the murders.

If the oligarch, who funded Russian opposition political parties and was critical of Kremlin policies, is found guilty of the latest charges he is likely to remain in prison beyond the county's presidential elections, scheduled for 2012.

Putin has not ruled out a run to return to the presidency in the polls.

"We have gone over and over this, how much more can we talk about it? 2012 is a long way off. Let's see," Putin said when asked about a possible bid during the more than four-hour session.

Source: Agencies