Legal proceedings test whether Russia will move closer to West

Children light candles at a rally in support of jailed former oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, once Russia's richest man, in central Moscow.
Children light candles at a rally in support of jailed former oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, once Russia's richest man, in central Moscow. (Yuri Kadobnov)

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By Kathy Lally
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, December 15, 2010

MOSCOW - Two separate legal proceedings this week are freighted with significance for Russia, helping determine whether the country will move closer to the West or remain an arm's-length acquaintance, widely regarded with suspicion.

The second trial of former oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky resumes in Moscow on Wednesday, with the judge expected to begin rendering his verdict, a process that could take days. And Thursday, the European Parliament is scheduled to vote on a proposal to ban visas and seize assets of Russian officials linked to the death in custody of Sergei Magnitsky, a lawyer who was arrested after uncovering a $230 million fraud scheme.

On Tuesday, a roster of world leaders and intellectuals sent President Dmitry Medvedev an open letter in which they suggested that if Khodorkovsky is convicted yet again and Magnitsky's case goes unpursued, the world's confidence in Russia's commitment to justice will suffer.

"We cannot stand idly by when rule of law and human values are being so openly abused and compromised," said the letter, whose more than 50 signatories included former French foreign minister Bernard Kouchner and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson (D). "Stable and reliable partnerships with Russia can exist only where our fundamental common values are shared and applied."

Khodorkovsky, once Russia's wealthiest man, was convicted of tax evasion and sentenced to eight years in prison after getting on the wrong side of former president and current prime minister Vladimir Putin. With his sentence due to expire in October 2011, new charges were brought against him, apparently to keep him behind bars during the 2012 presidential election.

"These charges were so ludicrous that if Khodorkovsky [and his partner Platon] Lebedev are convicted, the state now essentially owns the courts," said Leon Aron, a signatory to the letter and director of Russian studies at the American Enterprise Institute.

Official Moscow would probably have quickly forgotten Magnitsky were it not for the efforts of William Browder. Magnitsky, who was 37 when he died in prison Nov. 16, 2009, was an outside lawyer for Browder's Hermitage Capital Management, which managed the largest foreign investments in Russia until it ran afoul of authorities.

Browder lobbied the European Parliament to consider sanctions against Russian officials associated with the Magnitsky case after persuading a Canadian parliamentary subcommittee to adopt a similar resolution and U.S. Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin (D-Md.) to introduce such a bill in Congress.

"Law doesn't exist in Russia," Browder said Tuesday from London. "The more these things happen, the more people will write Russia off as a criminal basket case of a country, and that will negatively affect trade, diplomacy and tourism."

Russia, which had voiced growing irritation at the visa and asset threats, has been enraged by the possibility of sanctions, sending a delegation to Strasbourg, France, to lobby European Union lawmakers against them. When Canada took its action, the Russian Foreign Ministry called it "none other than an attempt to pressure the investigators and interfere in the internal affairs of another state."

Katrina Lantos Swett, another signatory to the Medvedev letter, said both Khodorkovsky and Magnitsky matter deeply to the United States. She is in Moscow to observe the Khodorkovsky trial on behalf of the Lantos Foundation for Human Rights and Justice.

"He has become Russia's most prominent political prisoner," she said of Khodorkovsky.

The letter was addressed to Medvedev not only because, as president, he is guarantor of the constitution but also because he has made it his mission to modernize and open up Russia. Yet many here anticipate that Khodorkovsky will be convicted, with the only question being whether he will be given the 14-year sentence prosecutors want, or a lesser term.

"The full sentence of 14 years would indicate to me the end of Medvedev's modernization," Aron said. "You cannot talk about liberalization when the rule of law is so shamefully betrayed."

Acquittal, he said, would have a powerful effect domestically. "Russia has always been a country where the lowest functionary looked straight up to the Kremlin. There's nothing in between. This would send a message that it's no longer safe to prey on and blackmail businesses," he said.

A mild sentence would signal that Medvedev holds some sway, Aron said, but anything else would mean that Putin's dislike of liberal trends has prevailed.

Swett, who said the judge is under enormous pressure, said she hopes he will turn out to be the rare individual who sees history coming his way and rises to meet it.

"I wish the judge courage," she said, quoting Khodorkovsky's final statement.


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