Putin Challenger Vows To Pardon Khodorkovsky

The Russian billionaire who this week announced his challenge to Vladimir Putin for Russia’s upcoming presidential election says his first move, if elected, would be to pardon jailed tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky.

Mikhail Prokhorov, a metals magnate estimated to be worth some $18 billion, announced this week that he would seek the presidency in March.

Khodorkovsky, once Russia’s richest man, has been in jail since 2003 on tax-evasion and fraud charges that critics say are punishment for defying then-President Putin’s power.

Some analysts view Prokhorov’s presidential bid as a genuine attempt to harness public discontent following the December parliamentary elections, while others speculate that it might be an attempt to dilute any possible challenges to Putin.

Many foreign observers and rights activists at home and abroad regard Khodorkovsky as a victim of politically motivated prosecution. But it’s not clear that a call for his release will play well among Russians who regard the rise of Russia’s post-Soviet oligarchs with suspicion.

The December 4 elections, won by Putin’s United Russia party, sparked unprecedented mass protests over alleged fraud.

Putin, long Russia’s most popular politician with significant influence over state-controlled media, is seen as almost certain to win a third mandate in the March presidential vote.

compiled from agency reports

Could Mikhail Prokhorov be the man to take on Vladimir Putin? | David Hearst

On paper, Mikhail Prokhorov has everything it takes to give Vladimir Putin a run for his money. At 46, he is rated Russia‘s third richest man by Forbes with a fortune of £11.5bn. He owns a private investment fund, co-owns Russia’s largest gold producer Polyus Gold, as well as Snob, a Russian-language magazine. In May, he became the first foreigner to own a stake in a National Basketball Association club, the New Jersey Nets.

All this, and yet if you believe him he bears a grudge against the Kremlin. The grudge stems from his first experience of the rough and tumble of Russian politics; the moment when, in September, he was ousted from the leadership of a Kremlin-backed rightwing party Right Cause, into which he had sunk £10.4m of his own money.

As well as wanting his money back, he also sought the head of the grey cardinal of Putin’s inner circle, Vladislav Surkov. The affair caused puzzlement among Kremlin watchers at the time.

Was it a genuine example of the Petrushka effect, when a puppet rebels against puppet master? Or was it part of another, as yet unpublished script? He said at the time that his was a challenge to Surkov, not to the system: “I am no revolutionary.” If he had presented a serious political challenge to Putin as an oligarch, he would be in the same position as Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who is languishing in jail.

The same questions are being asked now that he has said he will run for president against Putin. One possibility is that Prokhorov is part of an elaborately choreographed political ballet to create the illusion of a genuine opposition. The other is that, having seen up to 50,000 turn out in the bitter cold in Moscow on Saturday, and big demonstrations in St Petersburg, he might sense a genuine opportunity. Either way, Prokhorov’s bid will not be unwelcome to Putin.

The Russian prime minister has several problems, including a population who dares to challenge him, a shrinking wallet with which to buy them off, and an election that has to be won handsomely in just three months’ time.

But even though his personal ratings have taken a dramatic dive, largely as a result of his own mistakes, Putin retains an unassailable lead over all possible pretenders.

Having a young, rich, ambitious and rightwing Russian to challenge him will create a political contest which Putin is still bound to win. And he can always offer the talented Prokhorov a job in his administration afterwards, thus providing the balance that the ruling elite currently lacks after the departure of Moscow mayor Yuri Luzkhov.

Prokhorov’s challenge is the challenge of an insider, a member of the benighted inner circle of the extremely rich. He is not going to challenge the system, and yet this surely is what the thousands of Russians who have been demonstrating want. He lives in a different world from the rest of his countrymen and can spend a lot of money promoting himself, but whether he will be able to speak for the millions who are tired of living poor lives in a “managed democracy” is another matter.

Khodorkovsky film premieres in Moscow despite cinema snub

It has been a long wait, but despite alleged attempts to ban it and only one Moscow cinema agreeing to show it, a documentary about jailed oil tycoon and outspoken Kremlin critic Mikhail Khodorkovsky has made its debut in the Russian capital.

In the film business, the more scandal the better, and if you delve into the murky world of Russian politics that’s something you’re guaranteed to find. There was certainly no lack of controversy with this film. Simply titled “Khodorkovsky”, it took its German director, Cyril Tuschi, a grueling five years to make.

First, someone stole the tapes from Tuschi’s office just days before its world premiere at the Berlinale film festival in February, then a number of European festivals refused to show it. Now there are allegations that senior figures in the Kremlin don’t want it anywhere near their stately offices, not when parliamentary and presidential elections are just around the corner. 

The 113-minute documentary charts Khodorkovsky’s progress from leader of the Communist Party’s youth wing, Komsomol, to the world’s richest man under forty. Then he was also a symbol of Russia’s shadowy justice system, a system which the tycoon himself helped sustain, according to one interviewee, Dmitry Golobov, a former corporate lawyer in Khodorkovsky’s oil giant Yukos.

Khodorkovsky has been in jail on charges of fraud and tax evasion since his arrest on a Siberian runway in 2003, which his supporters claim was punishment for his funding of the liberal opposition at a time when Vladimir Putin was beginning to create a “vertical power structure.”

Six of seven Moscow venues that had previously agreed to show the film appear to have now changed their mind.

While the state-owned Khudozhestvenny cinema bowed out after receiving intimidating calls from Moscow’s culture department, the private-run KaroFilm cinema chain took the film off its schedule “without any explanation,” Olga Papernaya, the film’s distributor in Russia, told a news conference after the film’s press screening on Thursday afternoon.

Kremlin threats or not, the film will now only be shown in 15 cinemas across Russia, plus a surprising five in neighboring Kazakhstan, Papernaya said.

Tuschi said that he faced similar problems in other countries.

“It’s not specific for Russia; Germany, Switzerland and Spain have some sort of self-censorship too,” Tuschi said. “I don’t think some guy comes in and says ‘don’t show it’,’” he added, suggesting distributors may be “insecure” about revenues.

Still, the film was withdrawn from a festival in Zurich sponsored by Suleiman Kerimov, the billionaire Kremlin-friendly owner of the Russian football club Anzhi Makhachkala.

A tale of the power struggle between Khodorkovsky and then president Vladimir Putin, the documentary was initially intended to be “a feature film,” Tuschi said, adding that his motivation was simple: “What a great drama. That’s it.”

Tuschi had bodyguards at his side as he arrived in Moscow on Thursday but only because he feared he might be detained or forced to spend the night at the airport.

There was no security during the shooting of the film, although at one point, when he tried to negotiate entry to a Soviet-era labor camp in Eastern Siberia where Khodorkovsky served much of his first sentence, Tuschi noticed he was being watched.

“We were followed only once, on the train from Novosibirsk to Chita, really openly, they just wanted to show that they were there,” he said.

Tuschi dismissed speculation that the film’s Russia debut was dated to come just three days before the December 4 parliamentary election: “It was not a plan, it’s important that it opens at all.”

“I don’t want to include myself in Russian politics,” he said.

When he started filming in 2005, Tuschi said “I never thought I would actually see Khodorkovsky.” So when he was allowed to interview him in the courtroom during the jailed tycoon’s second trial in 2009, it was “like the fall of the Berlin wall.”

“No journalist ever tried to interview him because every time you approached him you got kicked out of court,” he said.

This “visual taboo” broke when former German Justice Minister Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger was permitted to have a one-minute talk with Khodorkovsky.

Standing in the glass and steel defendant’s cage, Khodorkovsky tells Tuschi he didn’t want to flee abroad to escape arrest and leave his business partner Platon Lebedev “hostage” to the Kremlin.

He also adds, smiling, that he was perhaps too “naïve” to believe in the rule of law in Russia, a claim supported by Igor Yurgens, a senior adviser to President Dmitry Medvedev, who said Russia “was not ready” for Khodorkovsky.

In a letter read out by Papernaya, the tycoon said he hoped “sooner or later” to see the documentary and expressed his gratitude to Tuschi and the dozen interviewees for their courage and impartiality.

While many still begrudge Khodorkovsky his one-time affluence and power, Tuschi said his main aim was to show how people could change.

“I’m happy that I didn’t do propaganda, so people can have their own opinions.”

 

Russia on brink of stagnation – Khodorkovsky

Jailed tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky predicts an era of stagnation in Russia which will be followed by a political crisis and then a change of power – “hopefully, a bloodless one.”

The former Yukos CEO believes that Vladimir Putin, who plans to run for the presidency in 2012, will neither leave power, nor find a successor.

“There is no authority figure in the country who would be able to provide Putin with secure guarantees,” Khodorkovsky said, responding to readers’ questions on the website of Ekho Moskvy radio station.    

“The liberal opposition’s task is to protect freedom values and human rights in the years of stagnation and ease the consequences of revolution,” he said, adding that the opposition should become “an active and constructive part of the post-revolutionary coalition.

Khodorkovsky believes that Russia does have a chance of productive development. However, it is only possible if the nation’s political, business and intellectual elite stop considering Russia as merely a money mill and realize that their interests depend on the development of the country.

Once Russia’s richest man, Khodorkovsky is now serving a 13-year prison sentence for tax evasion, fraud and money-laundering. He passed his answers to Ekho Moskvy website readers through his lawyers.

Khordokovsky rules out trading guilt admission for parole

 

Jailed Russian oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky has said he will never admit he is guilty of the crimes he was convicted of, even if offered early parole.

Khodorkovsky, who has been convicted in two separate trials since his arrest in 2003, denies the charges against him. He claims his imprisonment over alleged tax evasion and money laundering is politically motivated. The Kremlin has denied the allegations.

He is not eligible for release until at least 2016, but can apply for parole. Two separate appeals have already been rejected, however.

“Perjury is a grave sin,” he said, responding to users’ questions on the website of the liberal radio station Ekho Moskvy. “By saving oneself this way, you drown others.”

“I will not buy freedom at the cost of perjury.”

He also hit out at life in present-day Russia, saying under Prime Minister Vladimir Putin things depended entirely on the “mindset, opinions and ambitions of one man.”

Khodorkovsky, once Russia’s richest man, was seen as a potential challenger to Putin.

He said “attempts to save the empire” in Russia had brought it close to “national suicide.”

“As long as Russia retains its imperial syndrome, there will be no democracy.”

 

Khodorkovsky’s ex-cellmate to appeal second refusal to launch inquiry

Lawyers of Alexander Kuchma, a former cellmate of jailed Russian tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, will send a complaint on Wednesday to the district court of Chita on a lower court’s refusal to launch an inquiry over a broken wrist which he suffered at a correctional facility after he allegedly failed to kill Khodorkovsky.

Kuchma slashed Khodorkovsky’s face when they were cellmates at a correctional facility in the remote region of Chita in April 2006. Kuchma later claimed he had attacked the tycoon on orders from prison authorities.

Kuchma said prison authorities had broken his wrist because he failed to stab Khodorkovsky to death. Prison officials have denied the charges, saying Kuchma broke his wrist when he slipped and fell in the shower.

Kuchma has already been released from prison and now lives with his mother in Chita.

In 2006, Khodorkovsky was serving an eight-year sentence for fraud and tax evasion. He had his term extended by six years in a widely criticized trial in December last year. He is now expected to be released in 2016.

 

Main news of October 27

WORLD

* The UN Security Council ended the no-fly zone over Libya

* Israeli authorities released 25 Egyptian prisoners to swap them for a U.S.-Israeli national held in Egypt four weeks ago on suspicion of spying, a spokeswoman for Israeli penitentiary department said

* The European Parliament awarded the Sakharov Prize for freedom of thought in 2011 to five representatives of the Arab people, in recognition and support of their drive for freedom and human rights

* Representatives of South Korea and North Korea are holding talks with Russian officials in Moscow on resuming six-party talks on Pyongyang’s nuclear program, Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich said

* The European Parliament believes that Ukraine should receive prospects for membership in the European Union, a resolution issued by the EU on Thursday said

* European leaders agreed to increase the eurozone’s main bailout fund to one trillion euros as part of a package of measures to stave off Europe’s spiralling debt crisis

* A former cellmate of jailed Russian tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky has filed for political asylum in Britain, saying he is being harrassed and pressured by the authorities, his lawyer said

RUSSIA

* Russia will study proposals by Georgia to end a dispute that could wreck Moscow’s hopes of gaining membership of the World Trade Organization (WTO), a Russian Economic Development Ministry spokesman said

* A former police officer has been charged with organizing the murder of renowned Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya, Russian Investigative Committee spokesman Vladimir Markin said

* Investigative committee recommended house arrest, bail for critically ill defendants

* The Russian Investigative Committee confirmed on Thursday that the remains of Russia’s tsar family buried in St. Petersburg’s St. Peter and Paul Cathedral, as well as the bodies of Tsar Nicholas II’s children Alexei and Maria, which still remain unburied, were authentic

BUSINESS

* Ukraine and Russia are close to a compromise on natural gas supplies and will soon finalize a package of documents, Prime Minister Mykola Azarov said

* The markets and financial analysts welcomed the decisions taken by the European Union to tackle its debt crisis, with stock and oil prices jumping and the ruble strengthening

Russian Opposition Demonstrates Solidarity With Khodorkovsky

ST. PETERSBURG, Russia — Opposition activists have rallied in St. Petersburg to demonstrate support for jailed former oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who was arrested exactly eight years ago, RFE/RL’s Russian Service reports.

Khodorkovsky, the former CEO of the oil giant Yukos, and his close associate Platon Lebedev were convicted and sentenced for tax evasion in 2005. In December 2010, Moscow’s Khamovnichesky court found them guilty in a second trial of stealing oil and laundering the proceeds. They are due to remain in jail until 2016.

Members of the United Civil Front’s St. Petersburg branch staged a series of individual pickets on the city’s Issaky Square. Dozens of activists took up positions 50 meters apart holding portraits of Khodorkovsky behind bars and a placard saying, “Free Mikhail Khodorkovsky and Platon Lebedev.” 

The leader of the United Civil Front in St. Petersburg, Olga Kurnosova, told RFE/RL it was necessary “to remind everyone in the country about things like Khodorkovsky’s case.”

“There is such apathy in Russian society now, especially after [Prime Minister Vladimir] Putin announced his intention to run for president again, that it is important to stick to these things now,” Kurnosova said.

Kurnosova said actions in support of Khodorkovsky were being held in many other cities and towns across the world. She added that her organization would continue holding such actions until Khodorkovsky was released.

Khodorkovsky and Lebedev deny any wrongdoing and say that the cases against them are politically motivated.

Read more in Russian here

Russia’s investigation committee wants to set up finance police

Russia’s Investigation Committee has called for the creation of an independent body to investigate tax crimes.

Russia’s tax authorities are not empowered to conduct investigations and searches connected with tax crimes, and the police do not have the special knowledge needed to investigate tax evasion, committee spokesman Georgy Smirnov said.

That law enforecement function should be handed over to the tax authorities or to an independent new structure, Smirnov said.

“Either the tax authorities should be authorized to investigate such crimes or a separate structure subordinated directly to the Russian president should be set up,” he said.

Russia’s investment climate has suffered from a string of tax evasion and money-laundering cases targeting prosperous companies.

Legal proceedings launched against the now defunct oil company Yukos in 2003, seen by some critics as politically motivated, resulted in the conviction of many executives and shareholders, including founder and CEO Mikhail Khodorkovsky.

Khodorkovsky was arrested in 2003 on tax evasion charges and sentenced to eight years in 2005. His sentence was extended in a second trial on separate charges earlier this year and he is now due for release in 2016.

Former Yukos executive vice president Vasily Aleksanyan, 39, died in Moscow last week of complications related to AIDS. He was arrested in 2006 on charges of money-laundering, tax evasion and embezzlement as part of the Yukos case, and spent over two years in jail despite having been diagnosed with HIV and tuberculosis.

 

Main news of October 15

RUSSIA

* President Dmitry Medvedev said at a meeting with his supporters that Russia’s new government would consist of absolutely new people in case the ruling United Russia party wins the forthcoming elections

* Medvedev also said the country’s system of public administration should be changed, and offered to establish a ‘large, or extended government’, which would cooperate with the ruling party and public representatives

* Medvedev also said the only way to address problems in Russia was via power stability

 

 

WORLD

* Apple Inc. extended invitations to Silicon Valley’s big names to attend a private memorial service for late Steve Jobs on October 16, the Wall Street Journal reported

 

* One of the two pilots of the military plane which crashed on Friday during an air show in China was confirmed dead on Saturday, Chinese media reported citing the air show organizing committee

* Syrian President Bashar al-Assad signed a decree to draft a new constitution within four months to meet the opposition’s prime demand, the SANA news agency said

* At least 70 people, including police, were injured in Rome as protests turned violent during demonstrations against global financial policies, the Italian media said

 

BUSINESS

* German investigators accidentally came across bank accounts owned by jailed Russian tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky and members of his family, during a raid at the Munster office of Swiss bank Julius Baer, a German newspaper said

 

 

Jailed Russian Official: Yukos Auction Was Staged

TULA, Russia — A former member of the ruling United Russia party says Russian authorities orchestrated the fraudulent sale in 2004 of a stake in the oil giant Yukos, RFE/RL’s Russian Service reports.

Maksim Dudarev is a former aide to United Russia Chairman Boris Gryzlov and an ex-official at Rosgosimushchestvo, the state property agency.

He was found guilty of fraud in 2009 and given a seven-year prison term that he is serving in a labor camp in Tula Oblast.

Dudarev, 30, says the case against him is politically motivated and that he was jailed for trying to publicize the “activities in Tula Oblast of Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB), which was illegally confiscating properties from a local company.” 

In December 2004, Dudarev took part in an auction at which Yukos sold its 76 percent stake in its daughter company Yuganskneftegaz, its main extractor of oil and gas.

Those shares were purchased by an unknown company named Baikalfinansgrup that had been officially registered only two weeks earlier.

Baikalfinansgrup was bought by Russian state oil company Rosneft soon afterward.

Former Yukos CEO Mikhail Khodorkovsky and his close associate Platon Lebedev were convicted and sentenced for tax evasion in 2005 and, in December 2010, Moscow’s Khamovnichesky court found them guilty of stealing oil and laundering the proceeds. They are due to remain in jail until 2016.

Dudarev told RFE/RL on October 11 that his application for early release will be considered by the parole commission on October 20.

He said he is familiar with the Russian authorities’ scenario for auctions and tenders, explaining that the winner is usually known from the outset and all auction participants know when and how much to bid.

Dudarev declined to give any details regarding the auction of the Yukos stake other than to say it was organized by Igor Sechin, the current deputy prime minister.

Dudarev said the objective — to transfer ownership of the Yukos stake to Baikalfinansgrup — was known from the start.

“They herded all the auction participants together like cattle; it was clear from the beginning who was going to win,” he said.

Dudarev also admitted that he fears for his life. He said he is the only participant in the 2004 auction in jail and his main objective is to be released without implicating anyone who could then also be imprisoned.

Dudarev added that he will be able to divulge more details about the auction only after he leaves prison.

Read more in Russian here

Russian lawyer denied prison medical leave dies

A former Yukos oil executive whose struggle to win medical treatment for Aids and cancer came to symbolise the harshness of the Russian prison system, has died.

Vasily Aleksanyan, a Harvard-educated lawyer who headed Yukos’s legal department and was briefly vice-president of the firm, was imprisoned in April 2006 as part of the sweep against the oil company.

He was diagnosed with HIV shortly after his arrest, and later with tuberculosis and cancer of the liver, as well as severely limited vision.

Prosecutors accused Aleksanyan of acting as an accomplice to embezzlement and money laundering, two of the charges levelled against his former boss Mikhail Khodorkovsky.

Khodorkovsky was convicted of those charges last year, in a second trial his supporters say was designed to keep the former oligarch behind bars until at least 2017. Aleksanyan served as his lawyer after the tycoon’s arrest in 2003, on fraud and tax evasion charges.

Aleksanyan waged a long struggle to win himself early release so he could seek treatment for the diseases that were killing him. As Russian courts considered his case, he was moved to a hospital bed, to which he was chained. His supporters said the conditions in which he was held were degrading and inhumane.

In 2008, the European court of human rights in Strasbourg ordered Aleksanyan to be released on humanitarian grounds. A Russian court then demanded he post 50m roubles (£990,000) in bail. The charges against him were quietly dropped last year.

Aleksanyan, 39, died at home of complications from Aids, his family told Dozhd, a Russian TV channel.

Human rights activists have compared Aleksanyan’s treatment to that of Sergei Magnitsky, a lawyer for the London-based investor William Browder, who was arrested while investigating alleged fraud by government officials. Magnitsky died in November 2009 after being denied treatment for a worsening stomach condition that he developed during his imprisonment in Butyrka prison, Moscow.

On Tuesday, Russian journalists and bloggers began circulating a list of those involved in Aleksanyan’s arrest. The US and UK have issued informal visa bans for around 60 officials accused of involvement in the death of Magnitsky.

Former Yukos Executive Dies At 39

A former Yukos executive who was jailed while seriously ill in 2006 has died.

His family told the Dozhd Internet TV channel that Vasily Aleksanyan died on October 3 at his home in Moscow. He was 39.

Aleksanyan was a vice president at Yukos, Russia’s largest oil company.

He was arrested in 2006 on embezzlement and  money-laundering charges. He had also served as lawyer for Yukos owner Mikhail Khodorkovsky after his arrest in 2003, which was widely seen as political revenge by then-President Vladimir Putin for Khodorkovksy’s political ambitions.

Aleksanyan was diagnosed with AIDS shortly after his arrest. He later contracted tuberculosis and went nearly blind with liver cancer before his release on bail in 2008.

Human rights campaigners have described the Russian government’s treatment of Aleksanyan in prison as “inhumane.”

Charges against Aleksanyan were dropped in 2010.

Khodorkovsky is currently serving his second term for fraud.

compiled from agency reports

Putin in key speech ahead of polls

Russia’s powerful Prime Minister Vladimir Putin delivered a key speech to his loyalists on Friday amid speculation that he may seek a return to the presidency.

In a wide-ranging speech, Putin moved to defend the country’s legal system, saying it is “no worse” than America’s or the UK’s.

He admitted however that the system, which rights activists say is often abused by authorities, needed improvements.

“It is one of our key goals,” he told the congress of his ruling United Russia party in central Moscow.

The new sentence imposed on former oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky last year drew widespread international criticism, with the United States saying it was concerned by the apparent “abusive use” of Russia’s legal system for “improper ends.”

Putin’s comments come ahead of parliamentary elections in December and a presidential vote in March.

The premier, who has previously served two terms as president, has not announced his plans for the presidential polls. But both he and his hand-picked successor, President Dmitry Medvedev, have ruled out running against each other.

The prime minister said Russia’s legal system is “no worse than the Anglo-American one, and in some aspects, maybe even better than it,” because “even an ordinary citizen… can see their way around it.”

He also backed calls for all court rulings and judgments to be posted on the Internet.

‘So-called rights activists’

The Russian premier also said the country’s human rights activists “should be treated with tolerance.”

“There is a category of people who often criticize me, both with reason and without it, who fall into the so-called category of rights advocates,” Putin said. “They are few, but they direct attention towards the problems… which, unsolved, hamper the development of society.”

Russia’s leading human rights bodies, including the Moscow Helsinki Group and Memorial, accuse Putin of authoritarian methods, arguing that freedom of speech and information has suffered during his tenures as president and prime minister.

Addressing corruption, the premier called for harsher punishments for those giving and taking bribes and said it was necessary to “change the psychology of our society.”

“Our bureaucrats are part of our people,” he said.

Putin also backed a proposal to establish a new post of ombudsmen for women’s rights, but said that a definitive decision must come only through a “large-scale public discussion.”

The latest figures show that about 70 percent of low-income Russians are women.

The Russian premier vowed once again to reverse Russia’s demographic decline. In a key speech to the lower house of parliament in April, Putin unveiled plans to spend $53 billion on increasing birth rate and extending life expectancy.

‘Heart-beat’

Putin said the authorities should explain to the people the need for “bitter” austerity measures but should also “listen to the people’s heart-beat.”

An appeal to the heart was a key element in the successful election campaign of the late Boris Yeltsin, whose slogan was “Vote with the heart.”

Putin has seen his approval rating fall recently but still remains the most popular politician in Russia.

At least 41 percent of Russians believe Putin will be Russia’s next president, according to the country’s leading opinion pollster, the Levada Centre.

European court delivers mixed ruling on Yukos

The European Court of Human Rights ruled on Tuesday that the Russian authorities had violated the rights of the now-defunct Yukos company, but rejected claims that the break-up of the oil giant was politically motivated.

The split decision was welcomed by both sides.

The court also deferred consideration of a Yukos claim for $98 billion in compensation, giving the parties three months to reach an out-of-court settlement. The claim was the biggest ever filed at the court.

Politics or white-collar crime?

Lawyers for Yukos, which once pumped out more oil than both Libya and Qatar, had said that the company was hounded out of business after its owner Mikhail Khodorkovsky – then Russia’s richest man – began funding the Russian opposition. The Kremlin has consistently denied the allegation.

Yukos first became the subject of tax proceedings in 2002, when tax authorities accused it of setting up shell companies to hide earnings. It was declared insolvent in 2006 and was liquidated the following year. Its vast assets were acquired by the state-run Rosneft oil company.

Khodorkovsky was arrested in 2003 on tax evasion charges and sentenced to eight years in 2005. His sentence was extended in a second trial on separate charges earlier this year and he is now due for release in 2016. Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who was president at the time of the break-up of Yukos, said “a thief belongs in jail” before the start of Khodorkovsky’s second trial.

The ruling

In its ruling on Tuesday, the court said the Russian authorities had carried out “legitimate actions… to counter the company’s tax evasion”.

The judges also ruled that “There was no violation of Article 14 [prohibition of discrimination]… concerning whether Yukos was treated differently from other companies.”

But it also ruled that Russian officials had failed to give the company enough time to prepare its defense and had violated the company’s property rights.

The court also said its ruling was not final and was open to appeal.

Russian authorities’ reaction

Mikhail Barshchevsky, the Kremlin representative at Russian high courts, said the court’s dismissal of the political motivation allegations was an “indisputable victory”.

“The European Court of Human Rights conclusion that there is no political subtext in the Yukos case is an unquestionable victory for Russia’s representatives in the court,” he said.

Russia’s Justice Ministry also hailed the decision, saying in a statement that the court had acknowledged that Yukos “had a complicated plan for minimizing their taxes, which envisaged fraudulent use of numerous front companies, registered in Russian tax havens.”

“The charges of selective and individual persecution have not been confirmed,” the Justice Ministry added.

Yukos reaction

Khodorkovsky’s lawyers welcomed the court’s “findings that the Russian government violated the right to a fair trial and property rights while handling the Yukos case.”

Yukos’s former chief financial officer, Bruce Misamore, also claimed victory.

“The European Court of Human Rights confirmed that the Russian tax proceedings were unfair, finding that the limited period given to Yukos to have access to the case material was ridiculously short, however many lawyers Yukos might have been able to deploy,” he said in an online press conference.

“The points of our filing that the European Court of Human Rights has ruled in favor of are very, very significant,” he added. “The court has vindicated Yukos’ position.”

Steven Theede, former chief executive officer of Yukos Oil Company said the court found “the crux of the case was the speed with which the Russian authorities demanded that Yukos pay the taxes, despite the fact its assets were frozen, and the decision to choose to ‘auction’ OAO Yuganskneftegaz, its main production unit, to meet the asserted liabilities.”

In Russia

Reaction to the ruling was mixed within Russia.

Nikolai Kovalyov, a member of the ruling United Russia party and a former Federal Security Service (FSB) director, said Yukos had committed a crime, and disagreed with the court’s ruling that the company’s right to a fair trial had been violated.

“Here in fact is an element of politicization – pick on Russia any which way,” he said.

Lyudmila Alexeyeva, the head of the Moscow Helsinki Group, a human rights body, told RIA Novosti she hoped the second court ruling would be “in Yukos’ favor.”

“To me, it’s evident the case was politically motivated. Yukos paid its taxes honestly,” she said.

State Duma International Affairs Committee Chairman Konstantin Kosachyov said cases “should be legally perfect and watertight” or they ran the risk of speculation about a “political subtext, which is precisely what happened in the Yukos case.”

European Court Finds ‘Violations,’ But Clears Russia Of Deliberate Effort To Ruin Yukos

The European Court Of Human Rights in Strasbourg has ruled that Russian authorities committed violations in connection with the bankruptcy of oil giant Yukos in an eagerly awaited case in which the company is seeking $98 billion in damages from the Russian government.

But the court cleared Russia of the charge that it aimed to destroy Yukos and did not rule on the issue of compensation in the long-running battle.

Yukos wanted the Russian government to repay the value of its assets and loss of profits, as well as taxes, fines, and penalties that the company was charged, as it was liquidated in 2007 after years of prosecution.

In its complaint to the European human rights court, Yukos said Russia’s leadership under Vladimir Putin unjustly targeted the company over tax issues.

The Strasbourg judges found that authorities in the Yukos case failed to adhere to safeguards enshrined in the European Convention on Human Rights, including by not allowing sufficient time to prepare for trial over tax penalties and committing other procedural wrongs, RFE/RL’s Russian Service reported.

But the court rejected the complainant’s argument that Russian officials had discriminated in the case, RFE/RL’s Russian Service said. Nor had they exceeded their authority under the convention’s Article 18 on detention and other permissible restrictions, according to the court.

It said there was “no indication” that “Russia had misused those proceedings to destroy Yukos and take control of its assets.”

Yukos’s former chief, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, is now imprisoned in Russia for fraud and tax evasion. His supporters say he was prosecuted for posing a political challenge to Putin.

The case is not formally related to the cases of Khodorkovsky or his former business partner who is also serving jail time, Platon Lebedev. Both men have lodged complaints with the same court concerning their treatment at the hands of authorities, according to RFE/RL’s Russian Service.

The $98 billion sought by Yukos from the Russian government is more than double Russia’s annual defense budget, and is the largest amount of damages ever sought in the European human rights court.

The ruling by the court’s nine-judge panel is binding.

compiled from RFE/RL and agency reports

Rights Advocates Seek Yukos Attackers Blacklist

Russian human-rights activists and opposition politicians have called on the U.S. Senate to blacklist 305 officials in Russia involved in the prosecution of the Yukos oil firm and its former owner, Mikhail Khodorkovsky.

The targeted officials include Prosecutor General Yuri Chaika and Investigative Committee head Aleksandr Bastrykin.

The letter to the U.S. Senate was signed by former Deputy Prime Minister Boris Nemtsov, independent politician and academic Vladimir Ryzhkov, and human rights activist Lyudmila Alekseyeva.

The U.S. administration implemented in July a visa ban on a number of Russian officials after a similar request to punish human rights abusers.

Khodorkovsky was convicted of fraud, and tax evasion, and embezzlement, charges his supporters say were revenge for his political ambitions. The tycoon, who was arrested in 2003, is due to remain in jail until 2016.

The European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, France, is due to rule on September 20 on a lawsuit filed by former Yukos management seeking compensation for alleged illegal tax probes that led to the company’s bankruptcy in 2006.

compiled from media and agency reports

Russian court rules against Lebedev’s parole appeal

An Arkhangelsk regional court ruled that the earlier refused parole petition by ex-Yukos executive Platon Lebedev was legal, and his current appeal was again refused.

Lebedev and his business partner Mikhail Khodorkovsky, once Russia’s richest man, were sentenced to remain in jail until 2016 after a second trial in December. They were first jailed in 2003 on tax evasion charges.

A new parole request can now be filed only in another six months.

Lebedev’s lawyer, Konstantin Rivkin, said the defense intends to appeal the parole denial to the Supreme Court.

Lebedev and Khodorkovsky have both denied all the charges against them, claiming that the Yukos case was revenge by Russia’s powerful Prime Minister Vladimir Putin for Khodorkovsky’s sponsorship of opposition groups in the early 2000s. The Russian authorities have categorically denied the claim.

Khodorkovsky asked for parole in June, but the court refused to consider it. Putin earlier likened him to American gangster Al Capone and said “a thief belongs in jail.”

Russian High Court: Ex-Yukos Leaders’ Detention Illegally Prolonged

MOSCOW — The Russian Supreme Court has ruled that the the law was violated when the preliminary detention of former Russian oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky and his deputy was extended, RFE/RL’s Russian Service reports.

The Supreme Court agreed on September 13 with a complaint made by former Yukos oil giant head Khodorkovsky and his associate, Platon Lebedev, and issued a special statement to Moscow City Court Chairwoman Olga Yegorova regarding the violations.

The Supreme Court ruled that the decision by the Moscow City Court to prolong the incarceration last year of Khodorkovsky and Lebedev by three months was made with “violations of procedural requirements.”

Yury Shmidt, a Khodorkovsky lawyer, told RFE/RL after the Supreme Court judgment that he is skeptical about the ruling’s possible impact on his client’s future.

“It’s hard to say if [the Supreme Court’s ruling] will have any impact on [Yegorova’s] future. It all depends on whether they want her [to remain in her position] or not,” Shmidt said. “And this decision will have no impact on the future of Khodorkovsky or Lebedev. It only states once again that [the authorities] are always right. It’s like exonerating someone after they have served a prison sentence.”

Meanwhile, Lebedev lawyer Yelena Liptser told RFE/RL that the Supreme Court’s ruling confirms that the Moscow City Court has been ignoring the law.

“The Supreme Court ruling regarding [Yegorova] shows that it has agreed with our position that the Moscow City Court consistently ignores the law and therefore discredits the judiciary,” Liptser said.

In December, Moscow’s Khamovnichesky court found Khodorkovsky and Lebedev guilty of stealing oil and laundering the proceeds. They were then each sentenced to 14 years in jail. The terms were later reduced by one year.

Lebedev and Khodorkovsky were originally convicted and sentenced for tax evasion in 2005.

In May, Amnesty International declared the two men to be prisoners of conscience and called for their release.

Read more in Russian here