The Case against the Kremlin ; Oil Tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky May Be Incarcerated in Siberia but His Outspoken Canadian Lawyer Isn't Going to Stop Fighting for Him

By Diane Brady, with Jason Bush | The Independent on Sunday (London, England), July 2, 2006 | Go to article overview
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The Case against the Kremlin ; Oil Tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky May Be Incarcerated in Siberia but His Outspoken Canadian Lawyer Isn't Going to Stop Fighting for Him


Diane Brady, with Jason Bush, The Independent on Sunday (London, England)


Pitted against the rough justice of Vladimir Putin's Kremlin, few Russians would think of reaching across the Atlantic for a lawyer who doesn't even speak their language. But when billionaire oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky faced trial for tax evasion and fraud - charges many considered politically motivated - he wanted someone to take his case to the world. So he tapped Robert Amsterdam, a Canadian who has built a career defending clients in political hot spots from Nigeria to Venezuela.

After a highly publicised trial, stoked in part by Amsterdam's bellicose comments, Khodorkovsky was found guilty and sentenced to eight years in a Siberian prison camp. The assets of his company, Yukos, were largely absorbed into Rosneft, a state-owned oil giant that is due to go public. Amsterdam's visa was revoked and he was booted out of Russia.

That's not exactly what most would call a success. But for Amsterdam, 50, the case is far from closed. He's involved in litigation worldwide related to Khodorkovsky, who has had his face slashed by a fellow inmate and spent several stints in solitary confinement. He is also one of the loudest voices opposing the Rosneft flotation.

Although Khodorkovsky still pays him, Amsterdam seems to be on a personal mission. Some critics, such as Eric Kraus, the manager of the Nikitsky Russia Fund, say he has now "abandoned his role as a lawyer to become a PR agent".

Powerful enemies

It's an easy accusation to lob at the brash lawyer. He lobbies the European Union for new hearings, speaks at conferences and pitches himself to the media. To some, his publicity push keeps Khodorkovsky alive. But Amsterdam knows his strategy carries risks.

"We're walking a fine line in angering those who have the power of life and death over [Khodorkovsky]." That doesn't stop him from calling Rosneft's acquisition of Yukos's core assets "state theft" and the flotation a "syndication of the gulag".

Many in Russia argue that Khodorkovsky essentially stole state assets when he acquired Yukos. But even relatively neutral bystanders echo some of Amsterdam's concerns. George Soros has said he won't touch the offer for ethical reasons' emerging-markets guru Mark Mobius is staying away out of legal concerns.

Yukos shareholders have already started to sue to recoup losses. And Yukos - now a smaller company run by a London-based chief executive - has asked the Financial Services Authority to prevent Rosneft's listing.

"How can you sell something back to investors that has already been stolen?" asks a Yukos spokeswoman. Rosneft declined to comment, but its finance chief, Peter O'Brien, recently told an investment conference that the company was confident about the outcome of future litigation.

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