Russian prosecutors have launched a series of raids at banks, businesses and offices associated with the foundering oil company Yukos and its founder, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, in what appears to be the preamble to new charges against the jailed magnate.
On Wednesday, police searched the offices of Russian companies that did business with Yukos, and Dutch police searched the Amsterdam office of a Yukos subsidiary that manages the oil company's overseas assets. Prosecutors said the searches were part of an investigation into a $7 billion money-laundering scheme.
The Russian business daily Kommersant reported that new charges against Khodorkovsky were imminent. He "won't be surprised by the most absurd new charges that might be brought against him in response to continuing public and political activities," one of his attorneys, Anton Drel, told reporters Thursday. "For two years we have been witnessing a tragedy of justice. Now it is time for a farce."
Drel's law office was searched as part of the probe. Police also pored through files and computers at a nongovernmental organization, the Open Russia Foundation, which was set up in 2001 by Khodorkovsky to promote exchanges with the West.
On Thursday, another of Khodorkovsky's lawyers, Olga Artyukhova, was disbarred by the Moscow Chamber of Lawyers, the Russian news agency Interfax reported.
The money-laundering probe is apparently related to Fargoil, a Yukos subsidiary, which prosecutors first said they were investigating two years ago. Prosecutors have charged that Yukos used Fargoil to siphon billions of dollars from oil sales illegally into offshore accounts.
"The investigation has information that between 2000 and 2003 some executives and members of the staff of Yukos stole and laundered $7 billion by means of taking these funds out of the country," the prosecutor's office said in a statement. After the raids, the prosecutor's office said it had seized "accounting reports, stock transactions, supplements to contracts listing dummy and offshore companies, electronic databases, seals and forms of other organizations."
Officials at Yukos have denied the allegations, saying that the company's use of Fargoil and another subsidiary, Ratibor, was completely open.
The fallen magnate's supporters say his prosecution was instigated by the Kremlin to silence a political rival. With time served and good behavior, Khodorkovsky could be eligible for release before presidential elections in 2008, but fresh charges would likely extend his prison time even if he is not ultimately convicted.
Moreover, if he is the subject of a new investigation, Khodorkovsky can be kept at a pretrial detention center in Moscow, where he is now held under close monitoring. "We are in no doubt that the authorities will use any pretext to keep him where he is and to maintain full control over him," another of Khodorkovsky's attorneys, Yevgeny Baru, told Echo Moskvy radio.
Last December, a state-owned company, Rosneft, bought Yukos's prize asset, the Yuganskneftegaz oil fields, which yield 1 million barrels a day. The state forced its sale by auction to recover some of the $28 billion in back taxes that it says Yukos owes.