Russia's judge who sentenced former oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky in December to an additional six years in a Siberian penal colony took orders from "higher ups" who disagreed with the ruling he planned to deliver, the judge's court assistant has publicly alleged, saying her boss agreed under pressure to deliver a different verdict.
The remarks by Natalya Vasilyeva, who was aide and spokesperson for Judge Viktor Danilkin during the controversial 20-month second trial of Mr. Khodorkovsky and his business partner Platon Lebedev, have ignited a firestorm of discussion around what may be Russia's most sensitive political issue.
Judge Danilkin today called the allegations "slanderous" and promised legal action against Ms. Vasilyeva. But supporters of Khodorkovsky say the remarks are another compelling piece of evidence for their contention that the Kremlin stage-managed his trial to throw a veil of legality over what they say is outright political persecution.
"If anyone else [besides Judge Danilkin] participated in writing the verdict, then the verdict itself is illegal," says Khodorkovsky's defense attorney, Yury Schmidt, adding that the allegations will give new impetus to the appeal and could result in criminal charges against Danilkin.
Even Kremlin officials have worried out loud about the negative impact on Russia's international investment prospects created by the widespread perception that in Khodorkovsky's case Russian law was subordinated to Kremlin dictate. Vasilyeva's testimony is bound to deepen concerns about the reliability of Russian justice.
Trial orchestrated by 'higher ups'
An initial 2005 trial sentenced him to nine years in a Siberian penal colony on charges of graft, tax evasion, and fraud as part of a Kremlin campaign against the super-rich oligarchs. A lengthy 2007 US diplomatic cable released by WikiLeaks in December summarized the evidence that Khodorkovsky was being hounded by the Kremlin for political reasons and concluded that he would never be freed from prison as long as Mr. Putin remained in power.
Khodorkovsky's second trial was orchestrated from above and "higher ups" didn't like Danilkin's original verdict, so it was scrapped and replaced with a new one that he was forced to read aloud in court, Vasilyeva said in an interview published Monday (in Russian) in the independent online newspaper Gazeta.ru.
"Danilkin started to write the verdict. But what was in that verdict didn't suit higher ups, so he received a different verdict, which he had to deliver," she said.
She added that new verdict was probably written by judges at the higher Moscow City Court – the very place where Khodorkovsky's upcoming appeal is set to be heard.
“[Danilkin] had to communicate with the Moscow City Court on all disputatious matters that occurred during the trial," she said. "Whenever anything went wrong, or was not as it should be, he had to inform the City Court and got instructions on what to do next. "
Moscow court denies interference
In a reaction Tuesday, Anna Usacheva, a spokesperson for the Moscow City Court, cast doubt on Vasilyeva's competence and suggested she may not be acting on her own.
"This is a provocation. It's clear that Vasilyeva isn't aware of the basics of legal procedure," Ms. Usacheva told local reporters. "This is not merely an attempt to pressure the court, it's a well-prepared PR action."
But Vasilyeva said that Danilkin hated being under pressure but felt he had no choice but to bow to it. "He was nervous, worried, and he was indignant about it," she said in the Russian interview. "What he did was the result of coercion upon him."
Russian leaders 'will just ignore it'
Many supporters of Khodorkovsky are applauding Vasilyeva as a brave whistleblower, but some worry that she may not be able to withstand the inevitable pressure to recant.
"She was very brave, but this won't give her anything but trouble," says Lyudmilla Alexeyeva, a veteran Russian human rights campaigner. "We can only hope that she will remain a decent person."
Vera Chelishcheva, who reported on the Khodorkovsky trial for the opposition weekly Novaya Gazeta, says that in the absence of mainstream media coverage or any legal mechanisms for pursuing Vasilyeva's allegations, they are likely to be smothered in official silence.
"Without political will to follow up and verify what she's saying, nothing will come of this," she says. "If there were political will [at the top], that would be something completely new. Otherwise, they will just ignore it, and that will be that."