Masha Lipman on the Show Trial of Mikhail Khodorkovsky

mbk040809.jpgFrom today’s Washington Post:

Defense lawyers and legal experts call the case against Khodorkovsky and Lebedev absurd. Although the men were convicted of tax fraud related to the profits of their oil company, Yukos, they are now charged — in an indictment running more than 3,500 pages — with stealing basically all the oil that Yukos produced over the same period covered by the first trial. The accusations — of thievery and of failing to pay taxes on the allegedly stolen product — amount to double prosecution for the same deed.

“I was extremely surprised,” Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger, former justice minister of Germany, said to Echo of Moscow radio, “that the new charges are based on the same circumstances.” Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger, who attended the trial’s opening session, examined the first proceeding as the rapporteur of the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly and said that she found “many holes in the rule of law.”

Already, the judge has taken sides — as happened in the first trial –and dismissed numerous complaints from the defense regarding grossprocedural violations. So far, only the prosecution’s motions have beenaccepted.

Khodorkovsky’s original “crime” had been daring to think he couldmake his own decisions about how to develop his business and spend hismoney. A graver “felony” was to have a vision — independent of Putin’sdesigns — for his country’s future. Putin would not tolerate this sortof challenge. In his political system there could be no competition;only he would have full say over government decisions and control overresources.

Khodorkovsky made things worse by antagonizing people in Putin’scircle, who began to kindle Putin’s hostility toward the tycoon.Khodorkovsky toldthe London Sunday Times last year that Igor Sechin, a high-levelstaffer in Putin’s presidential administration who is now Putin’sdeputy in the cabinet, masterminded both cases against him.Khodorkovsky was arrested in 2003, and eventually his thriving businesswas destroyed through mind-boggling tax claims and legal shenanigansthat ensured Yukos paid its “debts” to the state.

For post-communist Russia, the Khodorkovsky affair was a watershed.The faint promise of the rule of law and independent courts faded away:The accusations and trial rulings made clear that law enforcement andthe judiciary could be bent to suit the interests of the executive.After the trial, any remaining hopes that respect for property rightsand business ethics would take root crumbled when Putin himselfendorsed dubious deals that members of his inner circle used to grabYukos’s best assets.

Photo credit: AP Photo