Russian court begins 2nd Khodorkovsky trial

MOSCOW — Imprisoned former oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky was led into a Moscow courtroom today for a new trial on multibillion-dollar embezzlement and money-laundering charges his lawyer called “crazy.”

The politically charged trial will go a long way toward forging the image of Russia under President Dmitry Medvedev.

Once Russia’s richest man, Khodorkovsky is past the midpoint of an eight-year sentence on a fraud and tax evasion conviction widely seen as part of a Kremlin campaign to punish him for challenging Medvedev’s predecessor, Vladimir Putin, and to strengthen the state’s grip on energy resources.

Yukos, the oil company Khodorkovsky built into Russia’s biggest in the scramble of the post-Soviet era, was bankrupted by tax claims and auctioned off in pieces, with its most prized production assets going to state oil company Rosneft.

Now Khodorkovsky, 45, is charged with embezzling more than $25 billion worth of oil from Yukos production subsidiaries and laundering most of the proceeds. He and business partner Platon Lebedev face up to 22 more years in prison if convicted.

“They are crazy, illegal,” Khodorkovsky’s lead lawyer, Vadim Klyuvgant, said of the charges during a break in the trial at the cramped Khamovkniki district courthouse. “They have no basis.”

Flanked by special police, Khodorkovsky flashed reporters a quick smile as he was led through a corridor toward the courtroom, where he and Lebedev were enclosed in a glass-and-metal cage.

Khodorkovsky’s supporters claim the second trial is just a new phase of a reprisal campaign driven by political calculations, commercial interests and personal motives. A new conviction and sentence would send a signal that nothing has changed despite Medvedev’s words, they say, while an acquittal would mark a break with the Putin era.

“Politically this is a very difficult case for the highest authorities here, especially Medvedev,” said Yevgeny Kiselyov, a liberal political commentator. “If Khodorkovsky is sentenced to another prison term, politically that would be Medvedev’s responsibility no matter what he says — particularly in the eyes of the West.”

But others say an acquittal is out of the question because it would cast a shadow over Putin, who maneuvered his protege Medvedev into the presidency last year and is widely seen as still calling the shots as Russia’s prime minister. Analysts also say that Russian leaders do not have to worry about a conviction chilling the business climate and frightening away foreign investors.

“I think that frankly the damage that they were going to do to the investment climate vis-a-vis Khodorkovsky has already been done, and I don’t think that putting any more pressure on him or giving him another 50 years in Siberia, if that’s what they decide to do, would have any effect,” Sam Greene, deputy director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, said Monday.

“My gut feeling is that it’s more of the same,” he said of the new trial.

Others believe Khodorkovsky’s fate will be determined by prevailing political winds and an under-the-carpet power struggle between Kremlin hard-liners and their more liberal opponents.

“The trial will be a test — which group is more influential at the moment,” Kiselyov said.

Lawyers for Khodorkovsky and Lebedev describe the new charges outlined in a roughly 4,000 page indictment as nonsense, saying they amount to an accusation that Khodorkovsky stole all the oil produced by Yukos from 1998 through 2003 — the year he was arrested. He is due for release late in 2011, a few months before Russia’s next presidential election.

“Khodorkovsky is in essence being accused of stealing this oil from himself, because … those companies from which he supposedly stole oil belonged to Yukos, and Yukos belonged to Khodorkovsky,” Maxim Dbar, a spokesman for Khodorkovsky’s legal team, said Monday.

Defense lawyers also argue that Khodorkovsky is being tried a second time for the same actions, saying the tax evasion charges in his initial trial were based in part on the pricing mechanisms the state is now using as the basis for its embezzlement and money-laundering claims.

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