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Bogus Crimes? Khodorkovsky Case At Crossroads, As Russian Politics Heats Up

A presidential committee studying Mikhail Khodorkovsy's second conviction found no evidence of a crime by the onetime billionaire oil baron and Vladimir Putin opponent. With a touch of absurdism, experts ask if someone can be convicted for someth

Mikhail Khodorkovsky being led into court during his second trial.
Mikhail Khodorkovsky being led into court during his second trial.
Natalia Gorodetskaya and Nikolai Sergeev


MOSCOW - The criminal case of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the jailed former head oil giant Yukos, is again stirring Russia's legal and political establishment. The Presidential Civil Society and Human Rights Council released a strongly worded opinion this week that undermines the onetime billionaire's second conviction, declaring that it found no evidence that Khodorkovsky committed a crime, and plenty of signs of prosecutorial misconduct.

This, of course, is not just a criminal matter -- but also a very political one.

The verdict against Khodorkovsky and his business partner and co-defendant, Platon Lebedev, "was a mistake," declared council member Tamara Morshakova. Khodorkovsky was sentenced to 14 years of prison, including time served, in December 2010 for money laundering and the embezzlement of 200 million tons of gas from the company he ran, Yukos Oil. His sentence was reduced by one year in May. But last January, the Presidential Council on Civil Society and Human Rights became interested in the case, and suggested to President Dimitry Medvedev that they should investigate. Perhaps surprisingly for what many consider a very political case, Medvedev agreed.

According to Morshakova, the council reviewed only the court documents, such as transcripts and testimony, that are available to the public. Based on those documents, the council concluded that everything that was used against the former head of Yukos - such as the vertical structure of the company, under which everything was controlled by a central command, signing non-specific business agreements, changing the companies holdings from one part of the company to another - were indeed all legal actions.

"In this case, they were punished for legal actions," Morshakova said.

Rector of the New Economic School, Sergei Guriev, added that "the company's actions do not have any relationship to any illegal action." Professor Otto Luhterhandt, from the University of Hamburg and Professor Anotoly Naumov, from the Russian Prosecutors' Academy, argued that the gas was not embezzled since it is impossible for the head of Yukos to illegally acquire something that he already owned.

According to the report's authors, Khodorkovsky's conviction goes against Russian law and its constitution, as well as the European Convention on Human Rights, which Russia has signed.

Official misconduct?

In addition, the council's investigation noted that a large number of prosecutorial rules where broken in the course of the trial. "The presumption of innocence was obviously violated, since defense evidence were not even examined by the court," said Morshakova. "Experts examined the text of the verdict and the indictment papers, and found that out of the 700 page verdict, more than 600 pages correspond to the text of the indictment."

In Morshakova's view, the most egregious misconduct was that the court refused to drop even those charges that the prosecutors had dropped themselves.

The presidential council plans to protest the verdict, in hopes of replacing the sentence with probation, while the Investigative Committee of Russia has suggested re-opening and re-investigating the case.

Despite the latest twist, Khodorkovsky's defense lawyer Vadim Klyuvgant didn't seem especially excited. "We have been talking about probation for a year now," he said. "But the prosecutors took part in the attack on Khodorkovsky. It is useless to remind the public prosecutor that he should follow the law."

Klyuvgant did see something worth pursuing in one part of the Investigative Committee's recommendations: "What if people are convicted for things that are not crimes? In that case, you should investigate how that happened."

In addition to its recommendation regarding Khodorkovsky's case, the council also suggested that any similar cases currently being prosecuted should be abandoned. The council likewise recommended that the President "make a decision regarding amnesty for individuals who have been tried for economic crimes." The council also recommended establishing a protocol to handle amnesty petitions.

Anna Usacheva, spokesperson for the Moscow city courts, where Khodorkovsky was tried and convicted, said that the council's conclusions were premature. "Verifying the legality of a court's decision is only possible within the framework of established legal procedures, based on the case material," she said. "The report said that it was only the opinion of private individuals. The legality of the decision in this case has not yet been verified by all of the necessary levels."

The political scientist Yevgeny Minchenko is convinced, however, that the current presidential candidate Vladimir Putin, in contrast to the current president Dmitry Medvedev, could use the subject of Khodorkovsky to his advantage. "Khodorkovsky has no desire to plead guilty - he has already served so much time," he said. "Putin could grant him a pardon as a way to improve relations with the West, or he could declare amnesty after the elections. Especially because Putin is seriously fighting for votes from entrepreneurs and from the middle class in major cities."

In fact, just recently, Putin announced that he would review a petition for amnesty from Khodorkovsky, if he were to give him one.

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