Stuck in Siberia? Jailed Russian oil tycoon faces new charges

MOSCOWMikhail Khodorkovsky, the billionaire Russian oil tycoon who was arrested after falling afoul of then-Russian President Vladimir Putin six years ago, is about to face a fresh wave of criminal charges, Moscow prosecutors have announced.

Mr. Khodorkovsky was charged with graft, tax evasion, and fraud as part of a Kremlin campaign against the super-rich oligarchs, who were deemed to have grown too powerful. In 2005, he was sentenced to nine years in a Siberian penal colony and his oil empire, Yukos – once Russia's most profitable private enterprise – was broken up and absorbed by state-owned companies.

But prosecutors, sifting through old investigative materials, now say they aren't finished with him. On Monday, they handed Khodorkovsky's lawyers an indictment accusing him and his co-defendants of scheming to bilk a Siberian oil company of $102 million, a charge that could see him sent back to prison after his current term ends in 2011.

Prosecutors insist that Khodorkovsky, who built his business during the freewheeling 1990s, must pay for his alleged criminal misdeeds. But critics of Mr. Putin argue that the tycoon's alleged transgressions were not unusual among Russian "biznesmyen" of the '90s, and that he was singled out for prosecution due to his political defiance. The Kremlin subsequently built its own petroleum empire, mostly upon the ruins of Yukos. (For more on Russia's state-run energy conglomerate, click here.)

From his perch in prison camp No. 13, in Siberia's far east, Khodorkovsky has issued a stream of sharply-worded "open letters" critical of the authorities to keep his image as an opposition figure alive in the public mind.

Critics say that with Russia's economy tanking and the threat of public unrest growing, the Kremlin may be hitting Khodorkovsky with fresh charges as a warning to all who might think of following his example of open opposition. "These charges show that the authorities still need Khodorkovsky" as a public whipping boy, says Andrei Kolesnikov, a biographer of Putin. "There is a fear of what might happen if he's let out of prison."

It may also be a personal vendetta between Khodorkovsky and the still-powerful Putin.

"As long as Putin is in power, Khodorkovsky will stay in jail," says Yulia Latynina, a liberal commentator for the independent Ekho Moskvi radio station.

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