Russian prosecutors may be laying the legal ground for bringing new charges against former Yukos Oil Co. owner Mikhail Khodorkovsky by trying cases against former company officials in absentia, his lawyer said.
“One after another, they are starting proceedings in absentia against employees and shareholders of Yukos that have gone into hiding,” Vadim Klyuvgant, a member of the jailed tycoon’s defense team, said in a phone interview today. “The third case, or rather continuation of the same old case, may appear at any moment if there’s will to do it.”
Khodorkovsky, once Russia’s richest man and chief executive officer of Yukos, was arrested at gunpoint at a Siberian airport in 2003 and is due for release in September 2016. About 10 court rulings have been made against people linked to Yukos without the defendant being present, with two such trials under way now, according to Klyuvgant.
Khodorkovsky and his business partner, Platon Lebedev, 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 says he was targeted by President Vladimir Putin for financing opposition parties, an accusation the Kremlin denies.
Recent charges made in absentia against a lawyer linked to Yukos accuse Khodorkovsky of running an “organized criminal association,” a legal formulation that carries a stiffer sentence of as much as 20 years in prison, Klyuvgant said. The Russian Prosecutor General’s Office declined to comment when contacted by phone today.
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.”
Even so, legal challenges against the prosecution and dismemberment of Yukos have won lenient rulings in recent weeks. A Russian court shortened the 12-year prison term of Vladimir Malakhovsky, a businessman implicated in the Yukos case, by more than four years last week and Lebedev’s prison term was cut by three years and four months by another court earlier this month. Russia’s Supreme Court ordered a review of Khodorkovsky’s second conviction in July.
A Yukos manager, Alexei Kurtsin, was freed early from his 15 1/2-year sentence at the beginning of this month, according to state news service RIA Novosti.