The Independent, Wednesday, 17 March 2010
Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the jailed former head of Russia’s biggest oil company, has thrown down the gauntlet to Vladimir Putin, the man many believe personally ordered his arrest.
From behind bars, the oligarch who was once Russia’s richest man, has challenged the Russian Prime Minister to answer in court a series of questions which he has supplied exclusively to The Independent. Lawyers for Mr Khodorkovsky, who has been in prison since his arrest in 2003 and subsequent conviction for fraud, intend to call the former president, still regarded as the most powerful man in Russia, as a witness when the defence questioning in Mr Khodorkovsky’s latest trial opens, probably later this month.
The jailed businessman claims that the prosecution case is full of flaws and contradictions, and challenges Mr Putin to explain his actions and statements relating to Rosneft, the oil company that became Russia’s biggest after Mr Khodorkovsky’s downfall.
“Your prosecutors claim that I ran Yukos not as an official chairman, but as the leader of an organised criminal group,” Mr Khodorkovsky writes, addressing Mr Putin directly. “When you discussed Yukos’s problems with me, with whom did you think you were talking?”
After Mr Khodorkovsky’s arrest and imprisonment, Rosneft purchased major Yukos assets at state-run auctions. It is chaired by Igor Sechin, a Kremlin insider and a close associate of Mr Putin. “Why is it that Rosneft paid exactly the same per tonne of production, but your tax authorities have no complaints about Rosneft?” Mr Khodorkovsky asks the Russian Prime Minister.
Mr Khodorkovsky was given a nine-year jail sentence in 2005, later reduced to eight, and had been serving it in a remote Siberian prison six time zones away from Moscow. However, a year ago, he was brought to the capital to stand trial on new charges of
embezzlement and fraud. If he is found guilty, he could be imprisoned for another two decades.
In written answers to questions put to him by The Independent through his lawyers, Mr Khodorkovsky also reflected on the liberal rhetoric of Mr Putin’s anointed successor, Dmitry Medvedev, as well as on his own state of mind given that he may well spend much of the rest of his life behind bars.
Most days, he and co-defendant Platon Lebedev are driven from the notorious Matrosskaya Tishina prison to the central Moscow courtroom where the trial takes place. The small band of supporters, liberal journalists and well-wishers that attend each day often collapse into giggles as the prosecuting lawyers tie themselves into knots with the reams of court documents.
Both Mr Khodorkovsky and Mr Lebedev have been active participants in the courtroom, sitting in the glass cage that has been nicknamed the “aquarium”, passing documents back and forward to their lawyers through a small window, and frequently questioning the prosecution witnesses themselves.
Nearly a year in, the defence team believes that the prosecution is finally about to finish putting its side of the argument, and in the next two weeks expect to begin calling their own witnesses to the stand.
Mr Medvedev, since coming to the presidency in 2008, has often struck a very different tone to his predecessor. He has spoken openly about the scale of corruption in Russia, and professed a desire to end the climate of “legal nihilism” in the country.