Putin Critic Lebedev Faces Prison as Hooligan Trial Opens

Russian newspaper and airline owner Alexander Lebedev went on trial today for alleged hooliganism on charges that carry a maximum prison sentence of five years.

Lebedev, 53, is being prosecuted for punching Sergei Polonsky, a property developer, on a televised talk show in 2011. Lebedev denies any wrongdoing. After a preliminary hearing, the court sent the case back to prosecutors due to “violations that would hamper conduct of the trial,” Genri Reznik, a lawyer for Lebedev, told reporters in Moscow.

The former KGB agent, who served in the Soviet Embassy in London during the Cold War, has said his fortune has fallen to several hundred million dollars from $2 billion two years ago after he came under official pressure. Lebedev has criticized corruption and a lack of democracy under Vladimir Putin’s 13-year rule, without publicly attacking the Russian president.

“We are counting on an acquittal,” Lebedev told reporters today at the court in Moscow. When asked if a fair trial is possible, the businessman said, “Why not?”

The trial should restart within a “few weeks,” Vadim Samsonov, a lawyer for Polonsky, said by phone from Moscow. The delay is strictly “technical,” he said.

Lebedev says he’s the subject of a three-year campaign in retaliation for funding Novaya Gazeta, a newspaper critical of Putin that investigates corruption. Lebedev also finances the Evening Standard and Independent newspapers in the U.K.

Plane Crash

On Feb. 4, Russian aviation authorities grounded Lebedev’s Red Wings Airlines because of safety violations found during a check. The authorities said the decision wasn’t directly connected to the crash of a Red Wings plane in December at Moscow’s Vnukovo airport, which killed five of the eight people, all crew, on board.

Polonsky, 40, is in detention in Cambodia after an incident in which he and two other Russians allegedly threatened the crew of a boat with a knife. Polonsky denies the accusations.

Polonsky “has insisted that wrongdoing be punished” and is being informed about Lebedev’s trial, Samsonov said. The lawyer said he has no information about when the businessman will be released from detention in Cambodia.

The investigation into Lebedev’s televised attack on Polonsky began in September 2011, days after then-Prime Minister Putin branded the incident as “hooliganism” at a Sept. 21 meeting with his All-Russia People’s Front.

Lebedev has said crooked businessmen in collusion with public officials with business interests have “embezzled and siphoned off” at least $700 billion from Russia during the past 15 years, citing data from the Web-based Tax Justice Network.

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