At Khodorkovsky trial, defiant ex-oil tycoon lashes out at Russia

Mikhail Khodorkovsky, once Russia's richest man, faces at least seven additional years in prison on charges he stole millions of tons of oil while running Yukos oil company.

By , Correspondent

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    Former Yukos CEO Mikhail Khodorkovsky seen behind a glass wall at a court in Moscow Tuesday.
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Mikhail Khodorkovsky, once Russia's richest man and now its most famous prisoner, made a dramatic appeal to a Moscow court on the last day of his controversial second trial.

Mr. Khodorkovsy has served seven years on tax evasion charges, which his supporters insist were trumped up to punish him for his political activism. Today he told a hushed courtroom that he's willing to spend the rest of his life in a labor camp rather than lay down his principles.

"My faith is worth my life," he said.

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He could face seven more years in prison if convicted on charges that he and his codefendant, Platon Lebedev, "embezzled" some 218 million tons of oil – about half of Russia's total annual output – between 1998 and 2003, while he headed the now dismantled Yukos oil empire. Judge Viktor Danilkin is expected to begin reading the verdict on Dec. 15.

"I will not be exaggerating if I say that millions of eyes throughout all of Russia and throughout the whole world are watching for the outcome of this trial," Khodorkovsky said. "They are watching with the hope that Russia will after all become a country of freedom and of the law, where the law will be above the bureaucratic official....

"Nobody is seriously waiting for an admission of guilt from me. It is hardly likely that somebody today would believe me if I were to say that I really did steal all the oil produced by my company. But neither does anybody believe that an acquittal in [this] case is possible in a Moscow court," he said.

(An English translation of his speech is available here.)

Russia's transformation

Since he was arrested on the tarmac of a Siberian airport seven years ago, Khodorkovsky has become the most contentious symbol of modern Russia's transformation over the past decade under former president and current Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.

Supporters of Mr. Putin see Khodorkovsky as the archetypal "oligarch," one of the robber barons who acquired vast fortunes through illegal dealing and Kremlin connections after the collapse of the USSR and later tried to parlay their wealth into political power. Khodorkovsky fits that bill, having won control of Yukos, which controlled about 20 percent of Russia's oil reserves, for just $350 million at an insider-rigged auction in 1996.

Three years later the company was estimated to be worth more than $30 billion. At a Kremlin meeting with several "oligarchs" after Putin came to power, Khodorkovsky was the only one to defy a presidential demand that the rich cease all political activity.

Shortly thereafter, he was arrested and sentenced to eight years in prison. Yukos was demolished with $27 billion in back-tax charges, and its profitable units swallowed up by state-owned oil companies. In a recent newspaper interview, Putin insisted that Khodorkovsky "deserved his punishment."

"The majority of Russians applauded his arrest, and they are still quite negative toward him," says Vladimir Pribylovsky, head of Panorama, an independent Moscow think tank. "But the mood is changing. I was not a fan of his, but I have begun to respect him more for the dignity with which he bears his punishment. He could have left the country, but he remains to struggle. By staying, he has become a leader of the opposition to the [Putin] regime."

A show trial?

Critics argue that Khodorkovsky was singled out for punishment for purely political reasons, and that the cases brought against him were devoid of legal merit.

During his second trial, which has dragged on for a year, the Kremlin permitted only two former government ministers to testify, but both appeared to support Khodorkovsky's position. German Gref, former minister of economy under Putin, told the court that it wasn't possible for Khodorkovsky to have removed the staggering amounts of oil he's accused of taking.

"If embezzlement had been discovered, I would certainly have been made aware of it," said Mr. Gref.

According to critics, Khodorkovsky's arrest and imprisonment is a clear message to Russian businessmen and others to steer clear of challenging the Kremlin. His second trial, which was introduced as his first jail term was ending, is meant to keep him out of the public eye – especially as the 2012 presidential elections draw closer.

"The original prison sentence meant that Khodorkovsky would be released next year, and then would be free to participate in elections and political life," says Ilya Ponomaryov, a former Yukos executive who is now a Duma deputy with the Fair Russia Party. "Some people are frightened of that, so he has to be kept in jail to prevent any return to public life."

Though Khodorkovsky's case is intensely followed around the world, and by Russia's beleaguered liberal intelligentsia, polls suggest that average Russians know little about it.

"The Khodorkovsky case is not much covered by the main [state-run] TV channels, so most people are not aware of developments," says Denis Volkov, a sociologist with the Levada Center in Moscow, an independent polling agency. "In a September poll, 26 percent said they knew nothing about it, 48 percent said they didn't follow it, and only 2 percent said they were watching the trial closely."

When asked "Who will decide Khodorkovsky's fate?" in the same poll, about 42 percent said the authorities would decide and 24 percent said the court would judge him, Mr. Volkov says.

"Most people assume this trial will end in a political decision," says Masha Lipman, editor of the Moscow Carnegie Center's Pro et Contra journal. "There is an ultimate decisionmaker in Russia, and that is Putin. He's the one that Khodorkovsky holds responsible for his unlawful prosecution, and it seems that everything still depends on him."

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