Russia targets aides of imprisoned Yukos oil tycoon

Khodorkovsky's lawyers face disbarment in what some say is a campaign to silence Kremlin critics.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

Mikhail Khodorkovsky is serving an eight-year prison term and Yukos, the oil empire that he founded, has been largely renationalized by the Russian state.

But in recent days, many of the lawyers who defended Mr. Khodorkovsky - and others who worked for him - have found themselves targets in an expanding campaign of official harassment that some experts say is aimed at intimidating all potential critics of the Kremlin.

Four of Khodorkovsky's Russian lawyers currently face disbarment for "dragging out" their client's recent appeal, which a Moscow court rejected last month. Another member of the team, Olga Artyukhova, was removed from the Moscow Bar "at her own request," while the prosecutor has appealed to the Ministry of Justice to "discipline" four others. Robert Amsterdam, a Canadian lawyer working for Khodorkovsky, was expelled from Russia by the Federal Security Service (FSB) two weeks ago.

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Khodorkovsky, who refused to flee Russia in the face of prosecution, remains a potential political force, some experts say. "He won't stay in jail forever, and the authorities are still scared of him," says Vladimir Pribylovsky, director of Panorama, an independent think tank.

"The goal here is to cut Khodorkovsky from all of his ties to the world, and to make people stop supporting him. It's also intended to scare lawyers, to make them forget the behavior they've grown used to over the past 15 years," he says.

Monday Khodorkovsky's lawyers discovered that their client has been taken from the Moscow remand jail where he has spent the past two years and transported to a prison camp to serve out his sentence. The authorities will inform the prisoner's family "within 10 days" where to send his mail, Khodorkovsky's press center said.

Russian prosecutors last week signaled that Khodorkovsky's own legal troubles may be far from over.

Russia's erstwhile richest man has been in prison since October 2003 on charges of fraud and tax evasion. He was eventually convicted in late May. But a series of police raids last week on banks, legal offices, and the nonprofit Open Russia Foundation connected with Khodorkovsky suggest a new case may be in the offing.

"They seized financial records going back to 2001, and told us it was connected with money laundering allegations," says Tatiana Endeko, a spokesperson for Open Russia, a civil society and democracy-promotion center that Khodorkovsky funds and chairs. "This is the first time Open Russia has been raided, though we've been checked over 20 times by all sorts of inspectors. We believe this is completely political. They want to destroy all of Khodorkovsky's works," she says.

The proceedings against Khodorkovsky's lawyers could disrupt his legal team just as he may need them to face a new case. "We are all under pressure, and if we're stripped of our status we won't be able to carry on," says Albert Mkrtychev, one of the lawyers accused of "breaching ethics" by refusing to replace their hospitalized colleague, Genrikh Padva, during Khodorkovsky's appeal last month.

Prosecutors claim the lawyers were stalling to enable their client to file his candidacy in a parliamentary by-election before his legal appeal ended. The court rapidly rejected Khodorkovsky's appeal and dashed his electoral hopes.

Facing disbarment when the Moscow Bar Association meets Oct. 21 are Anton Drel, Denis Dyatlov, and Yelena Levina. Another lawyer, Yury Shmidt, could be disbarred in St. Petersburg.

Mr. Padva, a venerable trial lawyer who defended Soviet-era dissidents, says the campaign to disbar his colleagues is unprecedented. "I began my career under Stalin, and I don't remember anything like this even then. These lawyers have not violated anything; all they did was to courageously defend the interests of their client."

Some experts see a wider pattern of intimidation, aimed at discouraging independent political activity.

"Vladimir Putin's whole tenure has been about silencing and immobilizing those who would be competitors for the Kremlin," says Masha Lipman, an expert with the Carnegie Center in Moscow. "What's happening to these lawyers is not an isolated case. We are seeing a purposeful and steady effort to reduce the voices of critics across the whole society."

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