Khodorkovsky Trial Seen as Test for Medvedev

APKhodorkovsky's father Boris and mother at their home outside Moscow.
The second trial of former oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, which kicks off with preliminary hearings Tuesday, offers a test case of President Dmitry Medvedev's promises to clean up the country's notorious judiciary, Khodorkovsky's lawyers and political analysts said.

But others said Khodorkovsky's case no longer retained the relevance that it had a few years ago -- at least for investors.

"It was the biggest cause celebre in recent years, but the focus of the market is a long way from anything to do with him right now," Roland Nash, head of research at Renaissance Capital, said Monday.

"Investors are utterly swamped by global events," he said, referring to the economic crisis. Compared to this, Khodorkovsky's legal problems are "ancient history," he said.

Nash acknowledged that Medvedev's professed goal to fight legal nihilism in the country was important, but said that fighting the economic crisis should take priority. "Right now, we need to deal with this tsunami," Nash said.

An acquittal for Khodorkovsky would surprise everybody, but this outcome is highly unlikely, investors said.

Khodorkovsky's lawyers, however, are painting the trial as pivotal to Russia's image as a place for investment and say it highlights deficits that are exacerbating Russia's suffering in the crisis.

"It is precisely the lack of attention to the rule of law that has helped [us] to get to the present state," lawyer Robert Amsterdam told The Moscow Times by telephone from London.

"This case is very important as a bellwether for the instrumentalization of the courts" by the state, he said.

Prosecutors accuse Khodorkovsky and his business partner Platon Lebedev of embezzling oil worth more than 892.4 billion rubles ($25 billion) from Yukos production units and laundering a portion of the profits, 487.4 billion rubles and $7.5 billion.

Both men are serving eight-year prison sentences for fraud and tax evasion, and Khodorkovsky's term ends in 2011. After his 2003 arrest, Yukos was broken up and its main assets were sold to state-controlled Rosneft.

Ivan Sekretarev / AP
A woman holding Khodorkovsky's portrait at an opposition rally Monday.

Khodorkovsky and his supporters call the case politically motivated, meted out as punishment by a Kremlin angered by his political and business ambitions.

Last month, Khodorkovsky and Lebedev were transferred from a pretrial detention facility in the east Siberian city of Chita to Moscow's Matrosskaya Tishina facility.

Khodorkovsky's lawyers call the new charges ridiculous, and a spokesman for the businessman said Monday that the charge of $25 billion theft in oil did not make sense.

"This amounts to Russia's annual oil production or to what Yukos produced over the course of the years it was headed by Khodorkovsky," spokesman Maxim Dbar said.

He said Moscow's Khamovnichesky District Court, where Khodorkovsky and Lebedev will be tried, might not reach a verdict until the end of the year.

Dbar said new convictions would amount to another sign that the court had acted under pressure from authorities. "The charges are so absurd that they have to be acquitted if the trial is balanced and fair," he said.

Amsterdam said the charges did not reflect any legal considerations but "a political decision made at the highest level."

Amsterdam, who was deported on a visa technicality in September 2005, will not represent Khodorkovsky in court. Khodorkovsky's lawyer Vadim Klyuvgant will attend Tuesday's hearing because the other main defense lawyer, Yury Schmidt, is recovering from an operation in a Moscow hospital.

Masha Lipman, a political analyst with the Carnegie Moscow Center, agreed that the case was politically motivated. "Beneath it lies a desire to demonstrate that Khodorkovsky will be kept in jail for many more years," she said.

A conviction on the new charges could bring a sentence of another 22 1/2 years in prison.

Lipman said the first trial had been a watershed and "a major factor in the compromising of justice in Russia," but the new trial would have deep implications on Medvedev's leadership.

"This will be a trial during his tenure, when he is formally the top authority in the country," she said.

Khodorkovsky himself said Monday that he had noticed some "positive institutional changes" since arriving in Moscow. "These are just early indications: attempts for the emergence of a normal opposition, a sane reaction to international events in parts of the elite and the beginning of a recognition of the judiciary as an separate branch of power," he said in comments posted on his web site

He said he had also observed some worrisome developments, but "it's always darkest before the dawn."

Khodorkovsky said he would be open and clear and not try to "fool" anyone at the trial, which he promised would be "a rather interesting show."

Meanwhile, Khodorkovsky's 75-year-old father Boris says he hoped for -- and expected -- a fair trial. "I'm really putting all my hopes on the current president. Up until now, I have had very deep respect for him, but I have no idea what will happen," he said in an interview with AP Television News.

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