Khodorkovsky: Fate of Russia rests on my verdict

The Associated Press
Tuesday, November 2, 2010; 11:20 AM

MOSCOW -- Imprisoned oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky gave an impassioned final address to a Moscow court Tuesday, telling the judge that the fate of the entire nation rests on the verdict in his trial.

In his last words before court proceedings were adjourned until Dec. 15, Khodorkovsky also said he was ready to spend the rest of his life in prison, insisting that the principles he believed in were "worth my life."

Khodorkovsky, 47, was Russia's richest man and the owner of its largest and fastest-growing oil company when he was arrested in 2003 on charges of tax evasion. The eight-year sentence he received and the state's takeover of his Yukos oil company were widely seen as punishment for his decision to challenge the authority of the Russian leader, Vladimir Putin.

He is now a year from release but is being tried on a second raft of politically driven charges that could keep him behind bars until 2017.

Putin, now prime minister, has not ruled out a return to the presidency in 2012, and critics suspect him of wanting to keep Khodorkovsky incarcerated until after the election. The case is being closely watched to gauge whether Russia has strengthened its commitment to the rule of law as President Dmitry Medvedev has promised.

"Here and now, the fate of every citizen of our country is being decided," Khodorkovsky, dressed in a black polo shirt and worn-out black suede jacket, said unwaveringly to a stony-faced Judge Viktor Danilkin.

He asked the judge to think of people all over the country who "are not counting on becoming victims of police lawlessness, who have set up a business, built a house, achieved success and want to pass it on to their children, not to raiders in epaulets."

Before his arrest, Khodorkovsky financed opposition parties, which gave him clout in parliament and the power to oppose Kremlin legislation. He pursued his own energy policies independent of the Kremlin and at the time of his arrest was on the verge of selling a chunk of Yukos to a major Western oil company.

The imprisoning of Khodorkovsky heralded Putin's determination to reassert Kremlin control over politics and the economy, in particular Russia's energy sector. Yukos was largely absorbed by state oil company Rosneft, which is controlled by one of Putin's closest lieutenants.

Other wealthy businessmen quickly learned the new rules of the game, though one of the few billionaires who stayed in politics, Alexander Lebedev, came under pressure Tuesday when masked Moscow city policemen raided his National Reserve Bank.

Lebedev, who owns two British newspapers, is the financial backer of a Russian opposition paper but is not known to be in conflict with the Kremlin. His fiercest political and business rival in recent years has been Yury Luzhkov, the Moscow mayor who was ousted by Medvedev in September.

Raids on offices in which computers and documents are seized are commonplace in Russia, and in many cases corrupt police are said to act on behalf of rival businesses.

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