Russian court begins 2nd Khodorkovsky trial

The politically charged trial will go a long way toward forging the image of Russia under President Dmitry Medvedev.

MOSCOW (AP) âÄî Imprisoned former oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky returned to a Moscow courtroom cage on Tuesday for a new trial on multibillion-dollar embezzlement and money-laundering charges that his lawyer called “crazy.” The politically charged trial will go a long way toward forging the image of Russia under President Dmitry Medvedev. Once Russia’s richest man, Khodorkovsky is past the midpoint of an eight-year sentence on fraud and tax evasion charges. The conviction was widely seen as part of a Kremlin campaign to punish him for challenging Medvedev’s predecessor, Vladimir Putin, and to strengthen the state’s grip on energy resources. Yukos, the oil company Khodorkovsky built into Russia’s biggest, was bankrupted by tax claims and auctioned off in pieces, with its most prized production assets going to state oil company Rosneft. Now Khodorkovsky, 45, is charged with embezzling more than $25 billion worth of oil from Yukos production subsidiaries and laundering most of the proceeds. He and business partner Platon Lebedev face up to 22 more years in prison if convicted. “They are crazy, illegal,” Khodorkovsky’s lead lawyer, Vadim Klyuvgant, said of the charges during a break in the trial at the cramped Khamovkniki district courthouse. “They have no basis.” Flanked by special police, Khodorkovsky flashed reporters a quick smile as he was led through a corridor toward the courtroom, where he and Lebedev watched proceedings from a glass-and-metal cage. Speaking to the court, Khodorkovsky accused the prosecution of obstructing justice and called for the trial to be stopped. “Personally, I’m fed up with this,” he said. Khodorkovsky’s supporters claim the second trial is just a new phase of a reprisal campaign driven by political calculations, commercial interests and personal motives. They say a new conviction and sentence would send a signal that nothing has changed despite Medvedev’s words, while an acquittal would mark a break with the Putin era. “Politically this is a very difficult case for the highest authorities here, especially Medvedev,” said Yevgeny Kiselyov, a liberal political commentator. “If Khodorkovsky is sentenced to another prison term, politically that would be Medvedev’s responsibility no matter what he says âÄî particularly in the eyes of the West.” Others say an acquittal is out of the question because it would cast a shadow over Putin, who maneuvered Medvedev into the presidency last year and as prime minister is widely seen as still calling the shots. Analysts also say that Russian leaders do not have to worry about a conviction frightening away foreign investors. “I think that frankly the damage that they were going to do to the investment climate vis-a-vis Khodorkovsky has already been done,” said Sam Greene, deputy director of the Carnegie Moscow Center. “I don’t think that putting any more pressure on him or giving him another 50 years in Siberia, if that’s what they decide to do, would have any effect.” “My gut feeling is that it’s more of the same,” he said of the new trial. Others believe Khodorkovsky’s fate will be determined by prevailing political winds and an under-the-carpet power struggle between Kremlin hard-liners and their more liberal opponents. “The trial will be a test âÄî which group is more influential at the moment,” Kiselyov said. Khodorkovsky and his lawyers told the court Tuesday they wanted to call top officials, including Putin, to testify, but Judge Viktor Danilkin said the motion was premature. Another defense lawyer, Karinna Moskalenko, said both the judge and the prosecution were biased against the defense âÄî an echo of the assumption of guilt that permeated Soviet-era courts. “They cannot accept the defense side as equal âÄî as a concept,” she said during a break. Defense lawyers describe the new charges outlined in a roughly 4,000 page indictment as nonsense, saying they amount to an accusation that Khodorkovsky stole all the oil produced by Yukos from 1998 through 2003 âÄî the year he was arrested. He is due for release late in 2011, a few months before the next presidential election. “Khodorkovsky is in essence being accused of stealing this oil from himself, because … those companies from which he supposedly stole oil belonged to Yukos, and Yukos belonged to Khodorkovsky,” Maxim Dbar, a spokesman for Khodorkovsky’s legal team, said Monday. Defense lawyers also argue that Khodorkovsky is being tried a second time for the same actions. They say the tax evasion charges in his initial trial were based on the same oil pricing and trade practices that the state is now using as the foundation for the embezzlement and money-laundering charges. Moskalenko said the defense should have more opportunity to present their arguments during this new trial. “The tone and the conduct of the trial is better than the previous one,” she said, “but the result, as I see it, is the same.”