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Putin Attacks Khodorkovsky

Prime Minister Vladimir Putin on Thursday accused Mikhail Khodorkovsky of ordering murders while running Yukos, in a stinging attack that the jailed businessman’s lawyer dismissed as a frame-up.

Putin, who as president oversaw Khodorkovsky’s arrest in 2003 and subsequent sentencing to 8 1/2 years in prison on tax and fraud charges, mentioned the issue during his annual televised call-in show.

Khodorkovsky’s case was raised when the call-in show’s host read out the question, “When will Khodorkovsky be released?” It wasn’t clear who had sent the question.

Putin did not give a definite answer but recalled that Yukos’ former security chief, Alexei Pichugin, had been convicted on murder charges and suggested that he had been acting on the orders of Yukos owners.

Pichugin is serving a life sentence after being found guilty in the 1998 killing of Valentina Korneyeva, who owned a building in central Moscow that Yukos owners wanted to buy, and the 1998 murder of Vladimir Petukhov, mayor of Nefteyugansk, where Yukos’ biggest oil production unit was located.

“He wasn’t the main shareholder in the company. It is clear that he acted in the interests of and on the orders of his bosses. And how did he act? There are at least five proven murders,” Putin said.

Khodorkovsky’s lawyer Vadim Klyuvgant said his client had never been charged with murder and accused Putin of trying to clear his own name in the case.

“It all looks like an attempt at self-acquittal. Khodokovsky has never faced such charges, and there is no such conviction,” Klyuvgant told The Moscow Times.  

He voiced doubt that the question had been chosen at random on the call-in show, which this year like in years past appeared to be carefully orchestrated.

A court in August 2008 convicted former Yukos owner Leonid Nevzlin to life in prison for ordering high-profile murders. Nevzlin, who lives in Israel, denies the charges.

Yukos was bankrupted after tax authorities demanded billions of dollars in back taxes in a case that is widely seen as punishment from Putin’s Kremlin for Khodorkovsky’s political and commercial ambitions. Khodorkovsky, his business partner Platon Lebedev and Yukos’ security chief have all been jailed.

Earlier this week, the former owners of Yukos said they had won a ruling from a tribunal of the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague that clears the way for a claim of up to $100 billion against the state over the way that it broke up the company.

Putin said Thursday that funds collected in the forced sell-off of Yukos’ assets had been spent by the government on the needs of ordinary people.

He said Russia used 240 billion rubles ($8.2 billion) of the proceeds from the bankruptcy auctions to create a housing and communal services fund.

“I have never said it publicly before, but now I will say that the funds earned from the Yukos assets were transferred to the budget,” Putin said. “If money was once stolen from the people, it should be returned directly back to the nation.”

But information about Yukos assets being spent on housing is not new. In 2007, the State Duma passed a bill that allowed the government to pump billions of dollars from the sale of the assets into housing and high-tech research.

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