Marieluise Beck: Impressions of a Show Trial

The following is a translation from the website of Marieluise Beck, a German Member of Parliament who made herself available to attend hearings of the second trial of Mikhail Khodorkovsky as an observer.  This memo summarizes her impressions of the process.


Khodorkovsky on trial: Impressions of a show trial

Marieluise Beck (Member of Parliament, Bündnis 90/Die Grünen) travelled to Moscow to observe the second trial against Mikhail Khodorkovsky, former principal shareholder of the oil company Yukos, and his business partner Platon Lebedev. Each was sentenced to 8 years of imprisonment in 2005 in a trial that on no account complied with constitutional standards and was obviously politically motivated. The second trial is on the verge of taking a similar course, particularly because the charge has absurd proportions and is completely contradictory to the first charge.

Read her impressions from the court room:

April 27th, 2009 A day in the county court Khamovniki in Moscow. The great “corporate criminal case” against Mikhail Khodorkovsky and Platon Lebedev is being heard; the sum in dispute amounts to $20 billion.

The court building is unimposing and the court room is small and shabby. Brawny policeman ‘secure’ the room. One would rather not get in their way.

For 18 days the prosecution read out the charge – an attritionstrategy not only for the defence team and the accused, but also forthe potential observers of the trial, whose patience is supposed tocome to an end given such a marathon.

However, a small group has not yet given up and attends the trial.The benches offer only little room for observers, about the space aschool class would occupy.

Among them is Marina Filippovna, Khodorkovsky’s mother, awhite-haired elderly lady. Grigory Javlinski, former president of thedemocratic Yabloko party, also stops by for a few hours.

Khodorkovsky and Lebedev are led into the court room in handcuffsand are then put into a glass cage which is barred at the ceiling. Theylook grey and tired. After all they have been in prison for over fiveyears, the two last of them in remand, i.e. no participation in theprison yard walks, no physical activity, small cells, marginalcommunication.

It evokes an oppressive feeling to imagine that these two men haveto live with the thought of disappearing in prison for more time tocome after the trial.

There are eight defenders in front of the cage, some of themexperienced human rights advocates. They know that they act withinconstitutional means of defence, but that there is no rule of law on onthe part of the court and of the prosecution.

The prosecutors wear uniforms and read out evidence for hours. Thejudge makes an inconsiderable impression, even stoic, like a poorblighter. No vain showmanship for being in charge of such an importanttrial. One wonders whether he has any judicial latitude at all? Afterhe has halted the legal proceedings, does he call somebody who ordershim to deny the defence’s motion to reject the case?

The defence team’s motion is rejected – a visibly ambitious youngprosecutor continues to read out the means of evidence. Impassively shereads out page after page.

The files comprise several cubic meters – 14 volumes, 3500 pages.However, the key data of the trial is easily summarized. The chargesaccount for embezzlement of 350 million tons of oil worth $20 million,money laundering of $21.4 million.

If these charges accorded with the facts, the accusations of taxfraud of billions of dollars raised in the first trial would beobsolete. Khodorkovsky’s company would not have had any revenue thatwould have been taxable. The sentence to eight years of imprisonmentfrom the first trial and the new charge are therefore mutuallyexclusive.

There are many indications that Khodorkovsky’s political engagementled to his downfall and that Putin wanted to get rid of a disagreeablerival. This is what differentiates him from other oligarchs which arenot put on trial by the Kremlin.

Insiders therefore assume that Khodorkovsky has no chance of beingreleased as long as Putin has the power to render him ‘innocuous’.

A whiff of futility that is characteristic of political trials inauthoritarian regimes lies over the court room. While passing off asformally correct, everybody knows that the outcome of the trial is notdecided in the court room.

Russia is a member of the Council of Europe and of the OSCE and hastherefore committed itself to principles of constitutional legality. Alarge extent of the new president’s credibility at home and abroaddepends on the outcome of this trial. If Khodorkovsky and Lebedev arerelegated from the Russian public life once again, Medvedev’s promisesof reform would appear insubstantial.