At Khodorkovsky Trial, Defiant Ex-Oil Tycoon Lashes out at Russia

By Weir, Fred | The Christian Science Monitor, November 2, 2010 | Go to article overview

At Khodorkovsky Trial, Defiant Ex-Oil Tycoon Lashes out at Russia


Weir, Fred, The Christian Science Monitor


Mikhail Khodorkovsky, once Russia's richest man, faces at least seven additional years in prison on charges he stole millions of tons of oil while running Yukos oil company.

Mikhail Khodorkovsky, once Russia's richest man and now its most famous prisoner, made a dramatic appeal to a Moscow court on the last day of his controversial second trial.

Mr. Khodorkovsy has served seven years on tax evasion charges, which his supporters insist were trumped up to punish him for his political activism. Today he told a hushed courtroom that he's willing to spend the rest of his life in a labor camp rather than lay down his principles.

"My faith is worth my life," he said.

He could face seven more years in prison if convicted on charges that he and his codefendant, Platon Lebedev, "embezzled" some 218 million tons of oil - about half of Russia's total annual output - between 1998 and 2003, while he headed the now dismantled Yukos oil empire. Judge Viktor Danilkin is expected to begin reading the verdict on Dec. 15.

"I will not be exaggerating if I say that millions of eyes throughout all of Russia and throughout the whole world are watching for the outcome of this trial," Khodorkovsky said. "They are watching with the hope that Russia will after all become a country of freedom and of the law, where the law will be above the bureaucratic official....

"Nobody is seriously waiting for an admission of guilt from me. It is hardly likely that somebody today would believe me if I were to say that I really did steal all the oil produced by my company. But neither does anybody believe that an acquittal in [this] case is possible in a Moscow court," he said.

(An English translation of his speech is available here.)

Russia's transformation

Since he was arrested on the tarmac of a Siberian airport seven years ago, Khodorkovsky has become the most contentious symbol of modern Russia's transformation over the past decade under former president and current Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.

Supporters of Mr. Putin see Khodorkovsky as the archetypal "oligarch," one of the robber barons who acquired vast fortunes through illegal dealing and Kremlin connections after the collapse of the USSR and later tried to parlay their wealth into political power. Khodorkovsky fits that bill, having won control of Yukos, which controlled about 20 percent of Russia's oil reserves, for just $350 million at an insider-rigged auction in 1996.

Three years later the company was estimated to be worth more than $30 billion. At a Kremlin meeting with several "oligarchs" after Putin came to power, Khodorkovsky was the only one to defy a presidential demand that the rich cease all political activity.

Shortly thereafter, he was arrested and sentenced to eight years in prison. Yukos was demolished with $27 billion in back-tax charges, and its profitable units swallowed up by state-owned oil companies. In a recent newspaper interview, Putin insisted that Khodorkovsky "deserved his punishment. …

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