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Khodorkovsky Questions Putin Ally From Cage in Moscow Courtroom

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June 21 (Bloomberg) -- Mikhail Khodorkovsky questioned former Russian Economy Minister German Gref in a Moscow court where the convicted one-time owner of OAO Yukos Oil Co. is facing a second trial that could keep him in jail for a further two decades.

Gref, summoned as a defense witness, spent more than two hours giving testimony as Khodorkovsky questioned him from the glass cage he occupies with co-defendant and former business partner Platon Lebedev in the Khamovniki District Court.

Now the chief executive officer of OAO Sberbank, Gref backed up the defense’s claim that Yukos was not alone among Russian oil companies in selling crude to its units at discounted prices. Gref also testified he had been unaware of any large-scale theft of oil while serving in the government of then-President Vladimir Putin, now prime minister.

Khodorkovsky is already serving an eight-year sentence for tax evasion and fraud in a trial that he claimed was motivated by his opposition to Putin. The 46-year-old, once Russia’s richest man, could get 22 1/2 more years if found guilty of stealing 350 million tons of oil from Yukos, which was later bankrupted and auctioned off under a $30 billion tax claim.

Gref, also 46, said that so-called transfer-pricing within vertically-integrated oil companies was not necessarily illegal, though the schemes hurt tax collection. He said he “probably” would have been informed if 60 million tons of oil a year had been stolen while he was economy minister.

Martians, Putin

Khodorkovsky handled the questioning himself, beginning with elementary points and building his argumentation.

“If a company is a victim of theft, who’s responsible for paying its taxes?” Khodorkovsky asked in his final question to Gref. “The company that had its oil stolen? The thief? Or nobody?” Judge Viktor Danilkin threw out the question.

The defense began calling witnesses in April after the prosecution spent a year giving evidence. Former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov, who joined the opposition after leaving government in 2004, has testified on Khodorkovsky’s behalf, as has former central banker Viktor Gerashchenko.

Industry Minister Viktor Khristenko, who served as energy minister during Putin’s presidency, is due to testify tomorrow.

“It’s more likely that Martians will show up in court” than it is that Putin will make a voluntary appearance, defense lawyer Konstantin Rivkin told reporters during a break. The court summoned only Gref and Khristenko from the government, he said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Lucian Kim in Moscow at lkim3@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Willy Morris at wmorris@bloomberg.net

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