MARY LOUISE KELLY, host:

Russian leaders say he's a corporate criminal. Some outside observers say he's a victim and a symbol of everything wrong in Russia. They're talking about Mikhail Khodorkovsky. He was once Russia's richest man. The question is, is that what landed him in jail?

Now, he's on trial again, and NPR's David Greene is following the case in Moscow.

DAVID GREENE: One thing you can say about Russia's legal system is it's hard to tell who's pulling the strings. It often still feels Kafkaesque. You can't tell if you're on the wrong side of the law or someone else.

Unidentified Man (Actor): (Reading) I sit in a cage made of bulletproof, slightly tinted glass. The cage muffles the sound so I see the courtroom more clearly and feel a bit detached. With less background noise, I can concentrate more on people's emotions.

GREENE: Those are Khodorkovsky's words. We couldn't interview him but he responded to our written questions and an actor is reading what he wrote.

Each day, the 47-year-old with his buzz cut and tired eyes is led into an isolation chamber behind his attorneys. This is common practice in Russia. Often defendants watch their trials from inside this aquarium, as the chamber's known.

Unidentified Man: (Reading) You have to see Russia beyond the window dressing, the Russia where a political opponent can be sent to prison for many years and his property taken from him. You have to see Russia as the country where society views this with indifference, where the elite keep silent.

GREENE: Not so long ago, Khodorkovsky was running the Russian oil giant, Yukos. He was rich, savvy and shrewd, owning a long list of enemies. And he was politically active, funding several opposition parties. In 2003, he was arrested on charges of tax evasion and he spent the last few years in a Siberian prison camp.

Now, in his second trial, Khodorkovsky and a business partner are accused of stealing billions of dollars and nearly 350 million tons of oil from their company. A conviction could mean 22 more years in jail.

Unidentified Man: (Reading) The Kremlin says Russia is a country of great opportunity, but my trial demonstrates that it is also a country of great risks.

GREENE: His fate, many believe, is in the hands of one man: Vladimir Putin. He was Russia's president in 2003 when Khodorkovsky was arrested. Many believe Khodorkovsky simply became too rich, too influential, and to Putin, too dangerous. Putin, now prime minister, rarely speaks of Khodorkovsky in public. And he doesn't seem happy when he's asked about it.

Prime Minister VLADIMIR PUTIN (Russia): (Russian spoken)

GREENE: This was in December. Putin went on to explain that Yukos, under Khodorkovsky, was never a model of good behavior. For one thing, the company's security agency, Putin said, was accused of engaging in contract killing.

Mr. PUTIN: (Russian spoken)

GREENE: These crimes are proven, Putin said. We should not forget about that.

Khodorkovsky himself was never implicated in those events. As for the defendant's current trial, Putin said the court will act according to law. If Putin is really in charge of all this, what's the thinking?

Ms. MARIA LIPMAN (Political Analyst, Carnegie Moscow Center): This is the question that is impossible to answer.

GREENE: Political analyst Masha Lipman from the Carnegie Moscow Center, said with this trial and all else, Putin loves keeping his intentions a mystery.

Ms. LIPMAN: Putting to shame all the guessers, whatever the decision is.

GREENE: One recent decision caught people by surprise. Two men - one current and one former official in Putin's government - got permission to testify, and rather than support the government's case, they helped Khodorkovsky, saying if he stole that much oil, they would have known about it.

A turning point? Lipman believes not. She said Putin may have been hoping, for a few days, to halt the negative publicity around the trial.

Ms. LIPMAN: This one twist, this one turn, adds a grain of propriety to it without having a crucial impact.

GREENE: The trial has dragged on for months. Each day a new twist, a new character. Recently, Kevin Dages, an American expert in accounting and business valuation showed up. He had offered expert testimony in more than 25 trials in the U.S. and he was never turned away by a court - until now.

The Russian judge said Dages wasn't familiar enough with Russian corporate law. Out on the street, Dages said he had hoped to testify about Yukos bank records that appear to account for the money Khodorkovsky's accused of stealing.

Mr. KEVIN DAGES: What they're being charged with is nothing more than the movement of funds from one pocket to the other, in perhaps what is a many pocketed pair of jeans, but still, all within the same family.

GREENE: Critics of this trial see the charges as vague at best, and they say Khodorkovsky's experience is the proof that Russia's legal system is corrupt.

Ms. MARY LOUISE BECK (Member, German Parliament): I was really upset when I got into that room.

GREENE: Mary Louise Beck, a member of the German parliament, has traveled several times to Moscow to sit in.

Ms. BECK: To throw people in jail because you are afraid they might be of political danger to you is authoritarian. Russia has to come back to the rule of law. Russia is member of the Council of Europe. You have very firm principles there and Russia doesn't go along with it.

GREENE: The defendant has embraced any outside support. He has a PR machine getting his message out, and he's written op-eds in newspapers like The Washington Post.

Mr. SERGEI ABELTSEV (Member, Russian Duma): (Russian spoken)

GREENE: None of which has impressed Putin's allies. Sergei Abeltsev is a member of the Russian Duma, or lower house of parliament. When Khodorkovsky's criticism of the Russian legal system showed up in a Russian newspaper, Abeltsev filed a complaint, saying the paper broke a Russian law against extremism.

Mr. ABELTSEV: (Russian spoken)

GREENE: For me, Khodorkovsky's an ordinary criminal serving his sentence, Abeltsev said in an interview. I don't think he's shown any remorse. Apparently, he's embittered and calling for an overthrow of our constitutional system.

What Khodorkovsky has called for in his writings, is a Russia free of corruption and with a transparent legal system. Guilty or not, Khodorkovsky has developed a message, and he's capturing attention from inside prison in a way he never did as a free man.

MARINA: (Russian language spoken)

GREENE: Khodorkovsky's 76-year-old mother, Marina, often comes to the trial. She remembers asking, when her son became successful, if he feared going to jail.

MARINA: (Russian language spoken)

GREENE: Mother, he said to me, these are new times. We have democracy, and everything will be different.

MARINA: (Russian language spoken)

GREENE: She also said her son was determined not to flee Russia when he had the chance. I asked him, do you regret that you stayed? He thought for some time and said, no, I don't regret. Now I'm able, with honesty, to look into people's eyes, my children's eyes. If I had fled, they would have said he's a thief, that's why he ran away.

MARINA: (Russian language spoken)

GREENE: As much time as Khodorkovsky spends poring over legal documents in the courtroom, he and his mother often make eye contact.

Unidentified Man: (Reading): Her support is important to me and heartwarming. I know she approves of what I'm doing. I have a real mix of emotions when I see my children in the courtroom, especially Ilya and Gleb. I'm happy to see them. But I know that at their age, they need their father with them, not as an image through glass.

David Greene, NPR News, Moscow.

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