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Russia: Why Kremlin still pursues banished oil tycoon Khodorkovsky

In Russia, where public support for Kremlin attacks on oil tycoon Khodorkovsky is waning, there are two starkly different narratives. But both sides agree he was singled out for punishment.

By Correspondent / December 18, 2009

People hold a portraits of jailed Russian oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the former head of the Russian oil giant Yukos, during a rally demanding the release of what they say are political prisoners in Russia, Moscow, Oct. 25.

Anna Shevelyova/AP/File

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After former President Vladimir Putin shipped ex-oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky to a Siberian penal colony in 2005, the oligarch, who refused to back down on his support for political opposition parties, largely fell off the radar in Russia. But nine months into a second trial on new charges that could add two decades to his eight-year sentence, Mr. Khodorkovsky's case is far from forgotten by those outside the country - or by the tiny knot of protesters who proclaim that Khodorkovsky is a victim of political persecution by a greedy and vengeful Kremlin.

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Every weekday morning since March, an armored van has pulled up to Moscow’s Khamovnichesky courthouse. Police secure the surrounding block while two heavily shackled men, screened by automatic rifle-toting guards, are hustled from separate van compartments and into the squat, gray-brick building.

Khodorkovsky then sits in his glass-and-steel courtroom cage, listening impassively to a parade of state witnesses who accuse him of money laundering and embezzlement.

The quotidien display of massive security might suggest something significant is going on, but Russia’s state-controlled TV networks have virtually ignored the second trial of Khodorkovsky and his co-defendant Platon Lebedev. Only a few foreign journalists and reporters for small Russian opposition newspapers are typically on hand. Thanks to a bitter December cold snap, even the usual protesters have been absent in recent days.

Both supporters and critics agree Khodorkovsky was singled out

The political storm that erupted after Khodorkovsky, then Russia’s richest man, was arrested on a Siberian tarmac six years ago and hauled to Moscow to face charges of fraud and tax evasion, does not seem to have abated.

Prime Minister Putin, who as president ordered the arrest and prosecution of Khodorkovsky, used his annual teleconference with the Russian public earlier this month to lash out at the executive.

He accused him of complicity in murder – something Khodorkovsky is not officially charged with – and asserted that all the proceeds from seizing and selling off Khodorkovsky’s Yukos oil company were used for the benefit of the Russian people. Last month, in a press meeting, Putin compared the fallen Russian tycoon with Al Capone and Bernard Madoff.

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