I have been getting a number of calls and emails about Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s impromptu attack against Mikhail Khodorkovsky during the televised call-in show this week, and there was one thing remarkably different from back when I would receive such calls just a few years ago: not a single person, not even the more moderate pro-government types, could be bothered to take him seriously.
Here we have the Prime Minister of a major power, an important country, speaking out in blatant and publicly acknowledged falsehoods to attack a Russian citizen, while the world sits back quietly in amusement watching him spin the Big Lie. For those who missed all the drama, this was the second time in two weeks that Putin fell off the script, and lashed out emotionally towards Khodorkovsky (whom I represent as international counsel). Putin behaved in a way totally inappropriate for any head of government – much less one who is so obviously personally motivated in the prosecution of a legal case.
The TV comments had all the appearance of improvisation, and it seemsunlikely that Vladislav Surkov, Dmitry Peskov, or anybody else had theopportunity to smooth out the edges of the statement. Asked whenKhodorkovsky would be released, Putin jumped: “Unfortunately,no one recalls that one of the Yukos security chiefs is in jail too. Doyou think he acted on his initiative and at his own risk? He had noactual interest. He was not the company’s main shareholder. It’sobvious that he acted in the interests and under the directives of hisbosses. How he acted is a separate matter. At least five murders havebeen proven.“
Leaving aside for just a moment the fact that Khodorkovsky is not a murderer, and has never been charged of involvement in any such violence, the logic and timing of this argument is ridiculous.
Blood libelis Putin’s Big Lie, and it is the ultimate mendacious recourse that theKremlin falls back upon in times of desperation. Why now, one mightreasonably ask, would Putin find the opportunity to share suchimportant new insights into the case of a political prisoner? A personwho has already suffered and been held illegally for six years now inlabor camps in Siberia and the isolators of Moscow?
One could considerthis the first official reaction to the international arbitration court decisionthat Yukos shareholders (separate from Khodorkovsky) can sue theRussian government as a signatory of the Energy Charter Treaty (ECT)for damages of up to $100 billion for their unlawful expropriation ofYukos. Let’s recall that we saw similar behaviorback when a Dutch court ruling back in March 2008 ordered that thegovernment pay $850 million in compensation. It is a clear warning anda threat, befitting of a thug.
As an avalanche of legal decisions from foreign, actual rule-of-lawcourts destroys the government’s credibility on the Khodorkovsky showtrial, more and more scrutiny is being focused upon the crime withinthe crime: what happened to the country’s largest, most transparent,and most successful oil company, and who pocketed billions from thisillegal expropriation? This inconvenient fact of vast personalenrichment and state corruption in the theft of Yukos makes anyaccusation against Khodorkovsky suspicious from the outset. They may aswell have accused him of starting the Reichstag fire.
Vadim Klyuvgant, Khodorkovsky’s trial lawyer, has pointed out thatthere are questions that Putin appears to be avoiding: “Thisis the second time in the last five days that the prime minister hasoffered an extended reflection [on the subject]. The relation betweenthe content of the question and the content of the reply isinteresting. Putin was asked, ‘When will you release Khodorkovsky?’ Thepremier no longer makes any corrections to the form in which thequestion is posed. He knows very well that he is the one who mustrelease Khodorkovsky. Let me stress that none of the accusations thatwere voiced today have ever been brought against the person of whomPutin was speaking.“
Today in the courtroom Khodorkovsky himself reacted to the slander: “VladimirPutin has just publicly declared that he knows for a fact that thefunds stolen by Yukos are not in the hands of those who suffered duringthe said case but have been transferred to the nation. In the words ofour premier, this money has been returned to the people on his orders.Since the prosecution have not found any other source of funds formyself and Yukos than from the sale of oil produced by the company theprosecution, evidently, Vladimir Putin knows certain circumstances,concealed from the court, that it would be of interest to know.“
Khodorkovsky also added that they plan to petition for Putin to besummoned to give evidence at the Khamovnichesky district court.First the comparison with Al Capone, and then murder accusations.
Yetif the Kremlin had any real crime to prosecute against Khodorkovskythey wouldn’t have had to mount two incompetently prosecuted showtrials. Sergei Magnitsky was just murdered at these people’s hands, using the same methods of medical blackmail suffered by a Yukos lawyer to force false testimony. Also this week, two constitutional court judges were just forced to resignfor showing independence. Legal nihilism is at its all-time high, yetthe government pretends to believe that all systems are running withregularity.
The panic we are witnessing shows that the criminals of the state doubttheir own legitimacy, and deeply fear the legal ramifications of whathappens next when this injustice comes to a close. And they should beafraid.