Jailed Russian Tycoon Fasts to Protest Colleague's Treatment

By Peter Finn
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, January 31, 2008

MOSCOW, Jan. 30 -- Imprisoned Russian oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky said Wednesday that he is going on a hunger strike to demand that another jailed executive receive medical care that the two men contend is being withheld to compel testimony.

Vasily Alexanian, a former lawyer and vice president at the dismantled Yukos company that Khodorkovsky headed, has late-stage AIDS and is close to death, according to his attorneys.

Alexanian accuses the Russian authorities of denying him medicine and a transfer to a specialized civilian clinic because he has refused to give evidence against Khodorkovsky in a new prosecution.

In a letter to Russia's head prosecutor, Yuri Chaika, Khodorkovsky said he faced an impossible choice: Either admit to false charges in order to help Alexanian, or hasten his colleague's death by maintaining his own innocence.

"I have to leave the legal framework and inform you that I'm beginning a hunger strike," wrote Khodorkovsky, who is imprisoned in Siberia. "I hope very much that the agency you head will make a decision that provides Alexanian with guarantees of life and medical care."

The European Court of Human Rights, whose decisions are supposed to be binding on Russia, has three times called on the authorities here to move Alexanian to a civilian medical facility. But such appeals have been rejected, and the Russian Supreme Court upheld the authorities' decision not to transfer Alexanian out of prison.

Robert Amsterdam, one of Khodorkovsky's lawyers, said in a statement that Alexanian "has been denied medical treatment solely for the purpose of extracting a false confession." Use of the legal system in such a way evokes "a different chapter of Russian history," he said.

Russian officials say that Alexanian can be cared for in a prison hospital but that he has refused antiretroviral drugs. His lawyers deny that.

Alexanian, who is nearly blind and may also have tuberculosis, is facing trial on charges of money laundering, embezzlement and tax evasion -- charges similar to those that resulted in an eight-year sentence for Khodorkovsky in 2005. Alexanian was rushed from a Moscow court hearing Wednesday in an ambulance, his attorneys said.

Supporters of Khodorkovsky, who is facing a fresh round of charges that could significantly lengthen his prison term, say he is the victim of a Kremlin-orchestrated prosecution because he posed a political threat to President Vladimir Putin. Authorities here insist Khodorkovsky is merely a rogue businessman who thought he was above the law.

Khodorkovsky's lawyer, Yuri Schmidt, said on Echo Moskvy radio that his client was also refusing to take liquids, which could accelerate any deterioration in his health.

"A hunger strike, especially a dry hunger strike, at a detention facility could have a serious impact on his health and put his life in danger," said Lev Ponomaryov, head of the group For Human Rights, speaking to reporters Wednesday. "I support Khodorkovsky's decision to go on a hunger strike. But I urge him to refrain from the dry form."

Prison officials said Khodorkovsky would be punished for refusing food, which is a violation of prison regulations.

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