Russian Court Orders Release of Khodorkovsky Partner in 2013

A Russian court shortened the prison term of Platon Lebedev, a move that opens the way for his business partner in defunct Yukos Oil Co. Mikhail Khodorkovsky to apply for early release.

A district court judge in the Arkhangelsk region city of Velsk, where Lebedev is imprisoned, reduced his 13-year jail term by three years and four months because of a change in the criminal code, Maxim Dbar, a defense team spokesman, said by phone today. Lebedev is set to be released in March next year.

“Khodorkovsky has the same right as Lebedev to a reduction of his sentence; this is a requirement of the law,” a lawyer for the former Yukos owner, Yuri Schmidt, said by phone. “But exactly how much his prison term will be reduced by, that is a subjective question. It could be as little as six months or several years.”

Lebedev, 55, and his associate Khodorkovsky, once Russia’s richest man and chief executive officer of Yukos, were sentenced to eight-year terms for fraud and tax evasion in 2005 and convicted again on related charges in December 2010. Their sentences were extended to 13 years from their arrest in 2003. Khodorkovsky, 49, says he was targeted by President Vladimir Putin for financing opposition parties, an accusation the Kremlin denies.

Putin, 59, who won a new six-year presidential term in March, is facing international criticism as he reins in the opposition following mass protests over his 12-year rule. The U.S., the European Union and senior German lawmakers have criticized the trial of three anti-Putin punk band members. Opposition leaders and activists are also being prosecuted.

‘Under Duress’

“The decision to free Lebedev early has been made under duress,” said Dmitry Oreshkin, a Moscow-based independent political analyst. “Russia’s image abroad is suffering and Western investors are having doubts about protection of their rights.”

Investors have cited the Khodorkovsky case as an example of the failure to respect the rule of law in Russia. Yukos was dismantled and sold at auction, mostly to state-run OAO Rosneft, to cover billions of dollars in back taxes after Khodorkovsky’s arrest. Putin has said that Khodorkovsky has blood on his hands and “thieves should sit in jail.”

Today’s ruling followed Lebedev’s motion seeking his immediate release. Khodorkovsky, who isn’t yet aware of the decision, hasn’t ruled out a similar request, Dbar said.

Government Approved

The former tycoon, who is in a prison in the northwestern region of Karelia, is still awaiting the outcome of a legal challenge against his latest conviction. The decision for Lebedev’s early release was “approved in Moscow” by the government, Khodorkovsky’s lawyer, Schmidt, said.

Prosecutors have 10 days to appeal and will consider their next move after formally receiving the court’s decision, according to the Interfax news service.

Khodorkovsky was arrested at gunpoint on the tarmac of a Siberian airport in 2003 and is due for release in September 2016. Putin will serve as president until May 2016.

“The market may well extrapolate the eventual release of Khodorkovsky from this development,” Julian Rimmer, a trader of Russian shares at CF Global in London, said by phone. “It’s purely superficial but it will hoist sentiment.”

Russian stocks pared losses, with the benchmark Micex Index trading 0.4 percent lower at 1,445.54 as of 4:19 p.m. in Moscow. The ruble-denominated gauge had earlier retreated from a three-month high, losing as much as 0.8 percent.

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