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Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Annals of Russian "Justice": The Khodorkhovsky Persecution, Round II

Over the past few days the Kremlin has launched a shameless series of attacks on jailed oligarch Mikhail Khodorkhovsky, just as he was about to come up for parole. Reuters reports on the filing of new charges against him, which Forbes quoted Khodorkhosky attorney Yuri Schmidt as being "not simply absurd - they are insane. ... Whoever wrote them was either mad or drunk." What he means is that Khodorkhovsky has already been convicted of failing to pay taxes on this allegedly "laundered" money, and now he is being accused of the same "crime" again, but this time just for the mere act of laundering without regard to the consequences. In other words, he'll be tried twice for the same offense, and conceivably sentenced to different periods of incarceration.

Russian prosecutors on Monday brought new charges against Mikhail Khodorkovsky, a move likely to bury the politically ambitious tycoon's hopes of release from jail before 2008 presidential elections. Khodorkovksy, the founder of the YUKOS oil major and once one of Russia's wealthiest and most powerful men , will now be tried on money-laundering charges, his lawyer said. He is already serving an eight-year sentence for fraud and tax evasion. Money laundering is punishable in Russia by up to 10 years in prison. If the charges are proved in court, some of the new sentence could be added to Khodorkovsky's existing term. "One thing all lawyers agree on is that the new charges are absurd," Khodorkovsky's lawyer Karina Moskalenko said by telephone. "They are crazy from start to end." Khodorkovsky's business associate Platon Lebedev was also charged with similar offences on Monday. He too is serving an eight-year sentence for fraud and tax evasion. The Russia's Prosecutor-General's office later released a statement confirming the new charges against Khodorkovsky and Lebedev Khodorkovsky's imprisonment has been widely seen as part of a Kremlin campaign to punish him for his involvement in politics, a taboo for tycoons under President Vladimir Putin. The Kremlin has denied any political motivation behind the trial, which ended in May 2005.

But the United State's State Department said the new charges raised fresh questions about Russia's commitment to democracy and free market economics. "The continued prosecution of Mikhail Khodorkovsky and the dismantlement of Yukos raise serious questions about the rule of law in Russia," State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said at his daily briefing. Under Russian law, Khodorkovsky could apply for early release from October this year, when he will have served half of his sentence.

2008 ELECTION

A member of the Khodorkovsky legal team linked the new charges with the 2008 presidential election, when Putin must step down and a successor is to be chosen. "(The) important thing is the tremendous fear Russia has ... that Mr Khodorkovsky might either become politically active because he was due for a possible parole later this year or that he might finance political parties," said lawyer Robert Amsterdam. Analysts say Khodorkovsky, who made a fortune in murky privatisations in the early 1990s, is not popular among voters and has no chance of becoming a key figure in the presidential polls. But his political independence, backed by solid financial resources, could cause headaches for a Kremlin keen to ensure a smooth handover of power to a new leader who will continue Putin's policies. YUKOS, once Russia's biggest and most profitable oil company, was driven into bankruptcy by back-tax claims. The firm's receiver said last month that YUKOS owed its creditors 667.8 billion roubles ($25.33 billion), up from the previously announced 492 billion roubles. "The Prosecutor-General's office views as criminal practically all YUKOS activities, its creation, oil extraction and sales," Lebedev's lawyer Konstantin Rivkin said commenting on the new charges. "Every step, every sneeze of theirs ... has been found to be criminal." Rivkin said the charges against Lebedev, similar to ones filed against Khodorkovsky, were contained in a 148-page document. It was officially announced to the two in the city of Chita, close to the Chinese border, where they are being held.

The International Herald Tribune reports on the attack on his lawyers:

Lawyers for imprisoned Russian tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky and his business partner were briefly detained at a Moscow airport on Sunday, a day before new charges were expected to be filed against their clients, one of the attorneys said. Five lawyers for Khodorkovsky and Platon Lebedev were detained by police at Domodedovo airport in the evening as they were waiting to register for a flight to the Siberian city of Chita, where their clients are in custody, Yuri Shmidt told The Associated Press. Speaking on his mobile phone as he headed for the flight, Shmidt said that he and the others were held for about an hour without explanation, and then were released. Police could not immediately be reached for comment. Khodorkovsky, founder of the now bankrupt oil giant OAO Yukos, has been serving an eight-year sentence in a Siberian prison camp near the Chinese border after being convicted in 2004 on fraud and tax evasion charges following a politically charged trial. He and Lebedev were moved in December to a detention center in Chita, a regional seat, for questioning. Before his arrest and the parallel tax probe that put most of Yukos in state hands, Khodorkovsky was estimated by Forbes magazine to be the richest man in Russia, with a fortune worth US$15 billion (€11.5 billion). The trial and tax probe were widely seen as Kremlin-driven punishment for his challenges of President Vladimir Putin and his perceived political ambitions, as well as part of a drive to boost state control over the strategically important oil sector.

Russia's top prosecutor last month said new money laundering charges would be filed against Khodorkovsky and other former Yukos executives, raising the prospect of years more in prison. Shmidt said Saturday that prosecutors would file the new charges Monday, and had instructed Khodorkovsky's legal team to travel to Chita for the indictment. Khodorkovsky could face up to 15 years for money laundering. He has been in detention since October 2003 and could be eligible for parole later this year. Kremlin critics suggested the new charges were aimed at ensuring he remains in prison and presents no political threat. Prison terms on separate charges are not usually served consecutively in Russia; convicts are jailed for the longest sentence. Prosecutors have not commented on the substance of the new charges. According to Shmidt, they allege Khodorkovsky was involved in laundering oil revenues defrauded from Yukos through his Open Russia foundation. Shmidt said he did not know why the lawyers were detained, but that police had hinted of suspicions that they possessed illegal documents. Lawyers and others linked to Khodorkovsky and Yukos have faced harassment from the authorities.

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