Jailed Russian Tycoon On Trial For New Charges
STEVE INSKEEP, host:
In Moscow, the former billionaire Mikhail Khodorkovsky is going on trial again today. His supporters say Khordorkovsky's original arrest and conviction was political because of his opposition to Vladimir Putin. Now, two years before his scheduled release from a Siberian prison camp, he faces another 22 years in jail. Here's NPR Moscow correspondent Gregory Feifer.
GREGORY FEIFER: In a country of billionaires, Mikhail Khodorkovsky was Russia's richest until his arrest six years ago. Sentenced to eight years for fraud and tax evasion, the head of Russia's biggest oil company Yukos was banished to the desolate city of Chita, 4,000 miles east of Moscow. Now, Khodorkovsky is back in the capital, inside the yellow walls of one of Moscow's most notorious jails. Prosecutors say he stole $25 billion - almost Yukos's entire income.
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FEIFER: Outside the prison, his lawyer Karina Moskalenko says Khodorkovsky is preparing his defense.
Ms. KARINA MOSKALENKO (Attorney): He wants open, public trial to show how baseless is accusations and how strong is his position to the (unintelligible) himself.
FEIFER: Although Khodorkovsky has borne his ordeal in public with pronounced calm, he's a long way from the time he used his vast influence to lobby against then-President Vladimir Putin and poured money into opposition groups. His mother, Marina Khodorkovskaya, says his arrest wasn't a surprise.
Ms. MARINA KHODORKOVSKAYA: (Through translator) Other Yukos executives had already been arrested, but the people telling him to flee the country like the others had done were just wasting their time. I know my son. He never would've done it.
FEIFER: In the 1990s, many reviled Khodorkovsky as one of the most ruthless of the country's financial oligarchs. But independent politician Vladimir Ryzhkov(ph) says Khodorkovsky was among the first to introduce Western business standards and gave more money to humanitarian and social causes than all his peers combined.
Mr. VLADIMIR RYZHKOV (Independent Politician): He became absolutely different man. He gave alternative model of business to be honest, transparent, to support civil society. And it was one of the main reasons why he was destroyed.
FEIFER: Ryzhkov says Putin's Kremlin hated Khodorkovsky - not because of his part in the kind of unsavory deals all Russia's top businessmen conducted, but because he posed a political threat. Yukos was sold to a state-controlled company in a shady auction, part of the Kremlin's drive to put the energy industry back under state control. Ryzhkov believes nothing has changed under Putin's hand-picked successor Dmitry Medvedev.
Mr. RYZHKOV: Medvedev has no influence. He has no power. And new Khodorkovsky deal, it's a very clear signal that the same people who destroyed Yukos, those people are still in power.
FEIFER: Ryzhkov says Khodorkovsky's trial is timed to keep him from being released from prison. Maksim Dbar, spokesman for Khodorkovsky's defense team, says it's part of an effort to physically destroy Khodorkovsky.
Mr. MAKSIM DBAR (Spokesman, Defense Team of Mikhail Khodorkovsky) (Through translator): The charges against him are absurd, if only because if Khodorkovsky really stole all of Yukos's money, then who spent those years paying taxes and salaries and investing in the company?
FEIFER: Khodorkovsky supporters say they have almost no hope for a fair trial because the Kremlin controls the judicial system. When Khodorkovsky walks free, Dbar says, then we'll know the Putin era is over.
Gregory Feifer, NPR News, Moscow.
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