Imprisoned Oil Tycoon Khodorkovsky Appears in Moscow Courtroom to Face New Charges
Wednesday, March 4, 2009
MOSCOW, March 3 -- Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the oil tycoon jailed five years ago in what was seen as a Kremlin bid to silence a wealthy and influential political foe, appeared in a Moscow courtroom Tuesday as preliminary hearings began in a trial that could keep him in prison an additional 20 years.
Khodorkovsky, once Russia's richest man and chief of the now-defunct Yukos oil firm, was shown on television sitting in a cage of bulletproof glass with his former business partner, Platon Lebedev, who also faces new charges. It was the first time Khodorkovsky had been seen in public since 2005, when he was convicted of fraud and received an eight-year prison sentence. He was originally arrested in late 2003.
The government's decision to put Khodorkovsky on trial a second time on new charges of embezzling nearly 350 million tons of crude oil and laundering more than $20 billion of the proceeds has fed speculation about a feud within the Kremlin elite over how to share dwindling state revenue as Russia confronts its worst economic crisis in a decade.
Prosecutors are calling Khodorkovsky's alleged crime the largest theft in the history of modern Russia. His supporters describe the accusations as preposterous and say the authorities are staging a second show trial intended to keep Khodorkovsky in prison indefinitely.
Vadim Kluvgant, Khodorkovsky's lead lawyer, said the new charges were completely fabricated and contradict those leveled against his client five years ago. Another lawyer, Robert Amsterdam, called the case "Kafka on steroids" and said it would present a test of President Dmitry Medvedev's commitment to rule of law and his pledges to fight "legal nihilism."
Dmitry Oreshkin, a Moscow-based political analyst, said the trial could be intended as a show of strength by a powerful faction of former security officials surrounding Deputy Prime Minister Igor Sechin, whom Khodorkovsky has accused of orchestrating his prosecution and the seizure of his Yukos empire.
In another sign of internal Kremlin strife, prosecutors last month renewed an embezzlement probe focusing on senior members of the Finance Ministry, naming a deputy minister, Sergei Storchak, and a former deputy minister as suspects. In a rare public rift in the government's ranks, the finance minister, Alexei Kudrin, has defended Storchak.
Oreshkin said the decision to transfer Khodorkovsky from his cell in the Siberian city of Chita and try him in Moscow could be significant, noting that prosecutors had previously fought off defense motions to move the case to the capital. "There will be much more media pressure in Moscow," he said.
Leonid Gozman, a leader of a new political party established by the Kremlin that is associated with Medvedev, said the Khodorkovsky case had done "serious damage" to Russia's reputation and the business community's trust in it. "We see this trial as a vivid example of selective application of the law," he said in a statement. "This is just one of many cases."
Medvedev has taken steps in recent months to set himself apart from his predecessor and patron, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who was president when Khodorkovsky was arrested. Khodorkovsky had criticized Putin's government and used his wealth to support opposition political parties and independent journalism.
Several weeks ago, one of Medvedev's advisers privately expressed hope that the second trial would be dropped, saying the president was trying to repair the damage caused by the case without offending the influential officials behind it. In Tuesday's hearing, held behind closed doors, defense lawyers filed four motions seeking better access to their clients and the removal of prosecutors involved in the 2005 trial. The judge rejected all the motions.