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Thursday, November 15, 2007

Free Khodorkovsky!

In a syndicated column Tatiana Yankelevich, director of the Sakharov Program on Human Rights at The Andrei Sakharov Archives and Center at Harvard University and offspring of Andrei Sakharov, blasts the Kremlin over Mikhail Khodorokvosky's arrest and calls for his release:

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice should seize on two recent favorable European court decisions to pressure Vladimir Putin for the release of two Russian entrepreneurs now languishing in Siberian prisons on what most human rights observers view as politically motivated charges.

In 2003, the Kremlin seized Russian oil giant Yukos and later sentenced its top two executives, Mikhail Khodorkovsky and Platon Lebedev -- both outspoken political opponents of Putin -- to eight-year prison terms for tax-evasion and money-laundering. Yukos itself was slapped with $26 billion in back-tax claims, declared bankrupt and largely taken over by the state-owned oil company run by Putin cronies. Unable to find justice in Putin-dominated Russian courts, lawyers for the two men pressed their cases in European courts and among the world's free media.

Last month, they scored some notable legal victories that should open the door for Rice and such American allies as France's Nicolas Sarkozy and Germany's Angela Merkel to increase the pressure on Putin to release the two men. On Oct. 31, a Dutch court in Amsterdam ruled that Russia's forced bankruptcy of Khodorkovsky's Yukos "was not in line with Dutch principles law" and that it could not recognize the bankruptcy as legitimate. It barred a receiver from selling $2 billion in assets of the Dutch-based Yukos Finance BV. The Dutch court added that Yukos was denied a fair trial to establish how much in back taxes it had to pay the Russian government, providing ammunition for Khodorkovsky's charge that the Kremlin pursued the bankruptcy as revenge against for his political ambitions and criticism of the Putin regime.

The Dutch action followed on the heels of an Oct. 25 ruling by the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, France, that Russia violated the rights of Lebedev, who was sentenced to nine years in jail in 2005 on charges of fraud and tax evasion.

European rights activists called the Yukos case "the first show trial of post-Stalinist era -- contending the persecution of Lebedev and Khodorkovsky has derailed Russia's progress along the road to democracy. The human rights court found that Lebedev's rights to liberty and security were violated during his arrest and subsequent pretrial detention and ordered Russia to pay $4,269 in damages and $9,961 for legal costs.

A few days before, Russia prevented Khodorkovsky from filing for a parole for a variety of disputed prison infractions that included not having his hands behind his back as he returned from an exercise walk. The charge followed on the heels of a penalty against Khodorkovsky for keeping "unauthorized lemons in his cell."

The two recent decisions by respected European courts provide an opening for the United States and its European allies to exert strong pressure on Putin to release Lebedev and Khodorkovsky from their imprisonment in the bleak Siberian city of Chita -- 3,700 miles from the relatives and friends in Moscow.

Drawing a line in the sand against such human rights abuses is especially important for the nations of European Union, many of whom have obsequiously kow-towed before Putin's threats to withhold from them vitally needed supplies of natural gas. Exhibiting a little backbone at this important juncture would show Putin that both the EU and the United States are more than happy to do the business with an emerging democratic Russia, but are wary of strengthening ties with a Russia where the rule of law seems to be slipping once again behind an iron curtain of authoritarianism.

In fact, it's time for all countries that claim to champion human rights to call for the freeing of two men whose only visible crimes were running a successful enterprise and speaking out in the free marketplace of political ideas.

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