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.
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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."Skip to next paragraph
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"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."