Behind Bars, Russian Tycoon Makes Bid For Freedom Former oil magnate Mikhail Khodorkovsky was once one of the world's richest men. But observers say he crossed Russian leader Vladimir Putin, landing him in jail. Now, facing more prison time, he's capturing attention from inside prison in a way he never did as a free man.
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Behind Bars, Russian Tycoon Makes Bid For Freedom

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Behind Bars, Russian Tycoon Makes Bid For Freedom

Behind Bars, Russian Tycoon Makes Bid For Freedom

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MARY LOUISE KELLY, Host:

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.

LOUISE KELLY: (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: 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.

LOUISE KELLY: (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: 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.

LOUISE KELLY: (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.

P: (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.

LOUISE KELLY: (Russian spoken)

GREENE: 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?

LOUISE KELLY: 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.

LOUISE KELLY: Putting to shame all the guessers, whatever the decision is.

GREENE: 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.

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

GREENE: 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.

LOUISE KELLY: 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.

LOUISE KELLY: 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.

LOUISE KELLY: 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.

LOUISE KELLY: (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.

LOUISE KELLY: (Russian spoken)

GREENE: 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.

LOUISE KELLY: David Greene, NPR News, Moscow.

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