Vladimir Putin, likening Mikhail Khodorkovsky to the American fraudster Bernard Madoff, called the jailed Russian oligarch a ''thief'' who deserved to be in prison.

Describing the Russian justice system as ''one of the most humane in the world'' in an interview on state television, the Prime Minister suggested Khodorkovsky had masterminded several killings to build his now-defunct Yukos oil empire, an allegation he denies.

A verdict is due in less than two weeks in Khodorkovsky's second trial for embezzlement and the remarks angered his lawyers.

''This is … direct pressure on the court,'' one of them, Yuri Schmidt, said.

''Madoff committed a similar crime and … got a 150-year prison sentence. Our way is much more liberal,'' Mr Putin said.

Telegraph, London