Russian Ruling Keeps Khodorkovsky in Exile as Lebedev Freed

Russia’s highest court decided to keep Mikhail Khodorkovsky in legal limbo by upholding the tax claim that prompted the former oil tycoon to choose exile after President Vladimir Putin’s surprise pardon last month.

At the same time, the Supreme Court freed Platon Lebedev, Khodorkovsky’s partner in Yukos Oil Co., four months early by commuting his sentence to time served. The men, arrested in 2003 and later convicted twice of crimes including fraud and tax evasion, had been due to be released later this year.

Khodorkovsky, 50, remains liable for 17.5 billion rubles ($514 million) of tax claims against Yukos, the court ruled. Khodorkovsky, who flew to Berlin on Dec. 20 after the presidential pardon, has said he won’t return to Russia unless the tax charges are dropped for fear of being arrested again. Former German Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher helped organize his release with Chancellor Angela Merkel’s support.

“As long as the claim stands, the ‘iron curtain’ can drop in front of him at any time,” Khodorkovsky’s lawyers said in a statement on his website. “The joy of the release of Platon Leonidovich Lebedev is mixed with the bitterness of the realization that, unfortunately, the Yukos case hasn’t been closed.”

Lebedev’s Release

Lebedev’s wife and daughter left for the Arkhangelsk region town of Velsk, about 650 kilometers (400 miles) northeast of Moscow, where Lebedev is imprisoned, according to his lawyer, Vladimir Krasnov, who said he didn’t know if his client was already freed. Lebedev lacks a passport to travel outside the country and will probably return to to the Russian capital after his release, Krasnov said by phone.

The head of the Supreme Court, Vyacheslav Lebedev, who’s unrelated to Khodorkovsky’s business partner, ordered a review of the tax claim to comply with a decision by the European Court of Human Rights last year, Pavel Odintsov, a court spokesman, said by phone Dec. 25. The Strasbourg-based court ruled that Khodorkovsky shouldn’t personally have to pay tax arrears claimed from Yukos, once Russia’s largest oil producer.

The imprisonment of Khodorkovsky has been used by the U.S. and European Union to symbolize what they say is selective justice in Russia. At the time of Khodorkovsky’s release, law-enforcement officials were considering new charges that may have added seven years to his sentence.

Khodorkovsky, once Russia’s richest man with a fortune estimated at $15 billion, is a longtime Putin critic who once funded opposition parties and groups aimed at developing civil society. The cases against Khodorkovsky, who has repeatedly maintained his innocence, were the key tools Putin used to tighten control over the oil industry by bankrupting Yukos, which was sold off in pieces, mainly to state-run OAO Rosneft.

“The goal of those in power is now to keep both Khodorkovsky and Lebedev from trying to return to Russia and legally finance different parties,” Stanislav Belkovsky, a former Kremlin adviser who’s now a political analyst in Moscow, said by phone. Their “every ruble can be seized and go toward the 17 billion rubles in damage they are still accused of.”

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