A feature article from Agence France-Presse:
Hidden from view, jailed Putin foe braces for trial Valerie Leroux Fri, 31 Aug 2007 In this sleepy city thousands of kilometres from Moscow a small band of activists and lawyers tries to keep alive support for the highest profile prisoner of the Putin era, Mikhail Khodorkovsky. High walls, barbed wire and a watch tower separate from the outside world the man whose dramatic 2003 arrest on a Siberian runway and subsequent fraud conviction cast a shadow over President Vladimir Putin’s reign. The conviction in 2005 of the one-time oil magnate and richest man in Russia on charges relating to his Yukos oil company was considered by the West a politically motivated bid to silence a Kremlin critic — an accusation the Kremlin denied. After the Moscow trial and appeals process, the 44-year-old was shipped off to this province far from the public eye in the east of the Russian landmass by the Chinese border. Now, as he and former business partner Platon Lebedev approach the half-way point in their eight-year terms, new charges have been prepared against them that could keep them behind bars for much longer. Lawyers for the two are tussling with prosecutors — who have listed the new charges as money laundering and embezzling at least $20-billion (€15.4-billion) through Yukos trading companies — over where the hearings should be held: in Chita, or back in their home town of Moscow. “According to the law the judicial process cannot take place anywhere but where the alleged offences were committed,” said a lawyer for Lebedev, Yelena Liptser. “By bringing the whole process to Chita they want to demoralise the accused. Their families are far away so it’s harder for them. And there are fewer journalists than in Moscow,” she said. Khodorkovsky himself has blasted the upcoming procedure. “What will follow is clear,” the jailed former tycoon said in a statement on his website in February. “Falsified evidence, testimony by perjurers who have been frightened or tricked, and a quick guilty verdict — a shameful farce that has nothing in common with justice.” Small groups of anti-Kremlin activists have held demonstrations of support in this city that once hosted exiled opponents of the Russian Tsars, known as the Decembrists. A few even held a fireworks display near the prison walls on Khodorkovsky’s 44th birthday on 26 June. “Physically he seems okay considering the circumstances,” said his mother, Marina (72), after she made the six-hour plane journey from Moscow to visit her son earlier this month. Khodorkovsky was first sent to serve his sentence at an even more remote jail in Chita province, while Lebedev was consigned to the far north of Russia. The reason was a lack of vacant cells of the appropriate type in western Russia, a spokesperson for the penal system, Alexander Sidorov, told AFP this week. Today, however, they are both housed in investigative cells in Chita city, studying the cases against them and consulting with their lawyers. Supporters say that while Yukos was assembled in shady circumstances after the Soviet Union’s collapse, Khodorkovsky had tried to turn it into a transparent business that applied Western standards of governance, while challenging the Kremlin’s growing grip on the economy. Critics maintain that Khodorkovsky and other “oligarchs” were depriving ordinary citizens of wealth from natural resources due to them. Marina Khodorkovsky is more worried about her son’s immediate needs, such as how he will cope with the stifling summer temperatures, which can reach 40ºC in his dilapidated cell. He is allowed out of his cell to exercise for just one hour a day. At other times he reads books and newspapers — he subscribes to more than 10 journals, according to the prison’s deputy director, Vitaly Bushmakin. His mother says that the once fiercely ambitious businessman has developed a more philosophical outlook, accepting the dismembering of his former empire, much of which has been incorporated into state company Rosneft. “He has become more gentle. He isn’t bitter. On the contrary,” she told AFP after her visit. “He told me today ‘All that I did remains. The pipelines are working, the refineries are working, the technology I had installed to international standards is still working. “‘Rosneft has taken on our employees. Once it was a backward company and now our employees have put in there the things I invented, so my ideas are prospering’,” she said, quoting her son. Despite the uncertainty ahead, the former star of Russia’s business world can now “live with anything”, his mother quoted him as saying. “He has books, which are very important to him. No one can ban him from thinking, reflecting,” she said.