New trial of Russian tycoon Khodorkovsky begins
Moscow -- A new trial of jailed Russian oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky began on Tuesday with the former Yukos chief facing charges of financial crimes that could keep him jailed into old age.
Khodorkovsky and fellow defendant Platon Lebedev shook hands as they took their places inside a bulletproof transparent booth in the heavily guarded courtroom and the judge declared the session open.
Later, Khodorkovsky’s lawyer said the defence was seeking the removal of prosecutor Dmitry Shokhin and his team, who led the original trial that ended in Khodorkovsky being sentenced to eight years for fraud and tax evasion.
That trial was a defining event in the presidency of Vladimir Putin, prompting critics to claim Khodorkovsky was being scapegoated as a warning to other members of the super-rich "oligarch" class.
"They want at any price to get what they want and not what is in accordance with the law,” defence lawyer Vadim Klyuvgant said Tuesday of the latest process. "No proof has been presented. How can there be proof when nothing has been committed? The investigation has been as bad as it could have been."
In the latest trial, running while Khodorkovsky is still serving his original jail term, the former tycoon faces wider charges of massive embezzlement and money laundering.
A statement for his lawyers said the two defendants were accused of embezzling the entire oil production of the now defunct Yukos oil company and of laundering hundreds of billions of rubles in cash.
As the session got under way, four supporters of the tycoon were arrested after unveiling a banner from a bridge near the court that read "Freedom for Khodorkovsky!" the Echo of Moscow radio station reported.
Security was tight inside the court, with the entrance to the chamber blocked by burley, black-clad special forces police.
Some commentators have voiced uncertainty over the attitude of President Dmitry Medvedev towards Russia’s most famous prisoner.
Since coming to office last May, Medvedev has stressed the need for Russia’s courts to be independent — in contrast with the first Khodorkovsky trial, which was likened by critics to the show trials of the Soviet era.
However the Russian business newspaper Vedomosti said in a column that on this issue, there was little likelihood of Medvedev deviating from the line of his still dominant predecessor, who is now Russia’s prime minister.
Halting the proceedings "would amount to a re-examination of the division of power and ownership created by Putin’s team," the newspaper said, concluding, "There’s no sign of a change of course or verdicts."
If found guilty of the current charges, said by the Kommersant newspaper to number at least 14 volumes, Khodorkovsky, 45, could be sentenced to over 22 years in jail, his lawyers have said.
Khodorkovsky was flown last week to Moscow from his Siberian jail and driven to a holding centre in a limousine.
In comments published on the website of his lawyers, Khodorkovsky said ahead of the trial he would show "openness, clarity and the absence of any cheating." "I guarantee a spectacle that is not without interest."
Khodorkovsky’s critics argue that he is criminally responsible for the methods he used to take advantage of the bargain-price sell-off of Russia’s natural resources by the state in the 1990s.
His prolonged detention has never aroused much concern on the part of ordinary Russians, with polls consistently showing that a majority of people have no sympathy with him.
But his supporters and activists have long alleged that Putin and the so-called “Siloviki” group of powerful ex-intelligence agents led by his right-hand man, Igor Sechin, instigated the arrest.
The tycoon had irritated the Kremlin by openly funding opposition parties such as the liberal Yabloko faction in the run-up to 2003 parliamentary elections.
In August, a court rejected a request from Khodorkovsky for parole, citing a refusal to take part in a prison training programme.
Former prime minister and opposition leader Mikhail Kasyanov described the new trial as a "legal absurdity," adding that it was an answer for those who had "predicted a thaw and urged support for the new ‘liberal’ president."