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Khodorkovsky lawyers warn of more charges, prison time

Imprisoned Russian billionaire Mikhail Khodorkovsky has become a symbol for critics of Russia's judicial system. Now his lawyers say he may face whole new charges to keep him behind bars.

Mikhail Khodorkovsky

Khodorkovsky was once Russia's richest man

A new criminal investigation against the imprisoned former oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky is a real possibility, Khodorkovsky's lawyers said on Thursday.

Khodorkovsky and his business partner Platon Lebedev have been in prison since 2003 for tax fraud - charges denounced by their supporters as trumped up. Last month they were sentenced to another 14 years, prompting criticism from within Russia and abroad.

The men's lawyers told a news conference on Thursday that they would not be surprised by a new criminal investigation against the two, aimed at keeping them behind bars even longer. They said they would not be surprised if Khodorkovsky were accused of murder.

Fall from grace

Vladimir Putin

Putin said the state had every right to take back Yukos's assets

Some eight years ago, Khodorkovsky was Russia's richest man and considered a potential rival by Vladimir Putin.

His oil company Yukos was one of Russia's most advanced and successful companies. A planned merger with another oil firm would have made it one of the biggest in the world.

But Khodorkovsky's dreams of creating Russia's first multinational company were thwarted by the Russian state, as he was arrested on charges of tax fraud and sentenced to eight years in prison.

Yukos was also cut to pieces. Its main asset was bought by an unknown company and eventually ended up in the hands of Russia's state oil company Rosneft.

Then-President Vladimir Putin said the state had the right to return former state property that was once privatized unlawfully, and that he knew the persons behind the mysterious company which first acquired the Yukos assets. But that company soon disappeared.

Court criticizes auction

For an international arbitration court in Stockholm, this was one of the reasons to question the legality of the auction of Yukos assets. In a recent decision, the court criticized the auction, as well as the legal measures taken against Yukos which destroyed the company.

Protester arrested by police

The ruling sparked protests from Khodorkovsky's supporters

"Yukos was treated quite different to the treatment accorded to its competitors and other comparable taxpayers," the court said. "The Russian state has not been able to provide reasonable arguments for why this happened."

The court also stressed that both bidders participating in the auction were controlled by the Russian state, and that the winning bidder was a completely unknown company just created before the auction and disappearing after the auction. All this adds to the impression that the scheme was set up by the Russian state to bring Yukos' assets under its control, it said.

Doomed fate

This is bad news for Russia because it may clear the way for numerous claims by former Yukos shareholders who have suffered huge losses as a result of the virtual renationalization of the company.

But it will hardly influence the fate of Mikhail Khodorkovsky. He and Lebedev's extra 14 years in prison for embezzlement and money laundering were no surprise to those familiar with Russia's judicial system, criticized for taking orders from the Kremlin.

Regardless of their seemingly doomed fate, Khodorkovsky and Lebedev say they will not appeal to President Dmitry Medvedev for amnesty, which Khodorkovsky indicated in his final word in court in November.

"I am not an ideal man, I'm a man of ideas," he said. "But for my ideas I'm prepared to die if necessary. I think I have proved that."

Author: Geert Groot Koerkamp/acb
Editor: Martin Kuebler

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