In his harshest criticism of the Kremlin to date, jailed tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky accused the Russian government of stealing his Yukos oil empire and warned in a letter published...

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MOSCOW — In his harshest criticism of the Kremlin to date, jailed tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky accused the Russian government of stealing his Yukos oil empire and warned in a letter published yesterday that an ongoing crackdown on post-Soviet freedoms will ruin the country.

Writing from prison, where he has been for more than 14 months, Khodorkovsky said the sale of Yukos’ main production unit into state hands this month “was the most senseless and destructive event in the economic sphere since President Vladimir Putin has taken helm.”

“Using selective justice, introducing new legal norms and applying them retroactively,” the state has undermined trust in the legal system, said Khodorkovsky, who is charged with fraud and tax evasion.

“Such methods damage the nation’s reputation and hurt the economy, but those who initiated that don’t care.”

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Putin has cast the 18-month crackdown on Khodorkovsky and Yukos as an effort to fight corruption and shady bookkeeping. But most observers see it as a vendetta for Khodorkovsky’s perceived political ambitions, including his funding of opposition parties.

The culmination of the legal assault came Dec. 19, when Yukos unit Yuganskneftegaz, which produced 60 percent of the parent company’s output, was sold at government auction to a shell company registered to the address of a bar. The sale price was half of what Yukos and foreign auditors say it was worth.

State-run oil company Rosneft, whose board of directors is now headed by Putin’s deputy chief of staff, covertly purchased the shell company. Both Rosneft and Yuganskneftegaz are being folded into gas giant Gazprom, creating a state-run company whose combined reserves will be six times that of ExxonMobil.

Putin defended the auction as an effort by the state to defend its interests, but his economic adviser, Andrei Illarionov, blasted the move yesterday, calling it the “fraud of the year.”

Khodorkovsky warned that Putin’s efforts to strengthen government controls would trigger the nation’s collapse. Putin is overhauling how local legislatures and governors are chosen and has muzzled journalists, particularly television news broadcasters.

Khodorkovsky’s latest letter contrasted sharply with others published this year in which he apologized for his actions and praised Putin.

“I didn’t just manage my property — it managed me in turn,” he wrote in his latest letter. “I was forbidding myself to say many things, because that could hurt my property.”

Khodorkovsky accused the state of “shameless” trampling on legal norms to wrest away Yukos. He called the government’s $28 billion back-tax claim, against which the Yukos unit was sold, a “bad joke,” saying it exceeded the company’s earnings.

Khodorkovsky, who was No. 16 on Forbes’ 2004 list of the world’s richest people with an estimated $15 billion fortune, said his personal wealth “will soon come to zero.” But he said losing it was not “unbearably painful.”

He also dismissed the criminal charges against him but said he was told authorities wanted to put him in prison for at least five years, fearing he will take revenge. He denied such intentions, saying he would rather “breathe fresh spring air, play with children … and read good books.”

Khodorkovsky has twin 5-year-old sons.