The Convict who Frightens the Kremlin


The following is a translation of an article about the second trial of Mikhail Khodorkovsky published in the French weekly magazine, Le Nouvel Observateur.

The Convict who Frightens the Kremlin
From our special correspondent in Moscow

Mikhail Khodorkovsky, former head of oil company Yukos, is serving eight years in prison in Siberia. He is again judged in a trial in which the arbitrary rivals absurdity. The Russian power in the hands of Putin, does not want to see out of prison the person who was formerly the richest man in the country…

It is in this tiny and outdated courtroom No. 7 on the second floorof the Khamovnitchesky District Court of Moscow that is partly shapedthe future of the new Russia. The traditional cage bars for thedefendants has been replaced by a bullet-proof glass cell. “Officially,it is a protection. In fact, the bars gave a disastrous image of thecountry”, said Vera Tchelicheva, from the opposition newspaper “NovayaGazeta”, which has a very low circulation, the only one to continuouslymonitor the hearings. The general public will know nothing of thetheater of the absurd that is played here, of what proves to be thetest case for the Russian government.

Rising to power in 1999, the former KGB lieutenant-colonel VladimirPutin had agreed to impose the “dictatorship of law”. Recognizing, nineyears later, the lack of judicial independence, his successor in theKremlin in 2008, the jurist Dmitry Medvedev has himself promised to end”legal nihilism” and introduce the “rule of law,” in other words, totransform Russia into a state where the law rules. But Vladimir Putin,now Prime minister, has remained the “national leader”. While the pressand foreign ministries, weighing up the power of both, would like tosee in Medvedev a “new Russian Gorbachev” and are lost in conjecturesand expectations about the liberalization of a regime that hasparticularly been hard under Putin, in the small room No. 7 of thecourt, the matter appears settled.

A rigged trial

In the glass cage called “the aquarium”, two large fish: pale withwhite, short shaven hair, thin glasses, wearing a sweatshirt, a blackjacket and jeans, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, 46 with his associate, PlatonLebedev, 53. Without fear of ridicule, Russian “justice” seeks to drownthe two men in months and months of hearings, under hundreds ofwitnesses, 188 volumes, nearly 10.000 pages of charges and hundreds ofkilos of documents, including personal letters , photo albums, andlaundry bills.

Before becoming the most famous political prisoner inRussia, Khodorkovsky was the richest man in the country. Takingadvantage of the great buy-outs market in the 1990s, questionableprivatizations and the legal void, he had founded, from scratch, theoil company Yukos.

Trained in Western management skills, a zealousworker, knowing first to listen and then decide, Khodorkovsky, comingfrom a modest family of chemists and the Young Communists, hadsucceeded, often swimming in troubled waters, to make it the leadingcompany in the country, the best managed, the cleanest and the mosttransparent one. Today, in front of him is Valery Lakhtine, chiefprosecutor. Stooped, with angular features and a haggard face, wearinga luxury watch worth several months of his salary, he regularly makesmistakes in the references and is lost under tons of papers.

Theaudience, about fifty people at most, laughs. Indeed, the prosecutor,assisted by four deputies, has put a laptop in front of him. But thescreen is blank. In two days of hearing, he will laboriously type asentence and a half with one finger. In front of them, stands the armyof lawyers of the defendants, also equipped with laptops but showingformidable efficiency. All the documents have been scanned. As soon asthey are mentioned, they appear on the screen.

It is a gigantic battlebetween the old and formidable Russian bureaucracy and the latestWestern technology. But a rigged battle. For whatever happens in thisroom, Khodorkovsky will wiithout doubt be found guilty. First sentencedin 2003 to eight years in prison for tax fraud, he saw his companydismantled, officially in favor of the state and the “people” but infact to the benefit of people close to Putin.

His parole release wasdenied, a (false) witness accused Khordorkovsky of returning from awalk without holding his hands behind his back. He is regularlypunished and thrown into a dungeon. For keeping two “unauthorized”lemons, drinking tea “out of time limits”, giving an interview inwriting, missing a sewing class, etc. Khodorkovsky must be kept inprison. He is a dangerous man, “under video-surveillance twenty-fourseven, even in the toilets”, says his mother, Marina Filippovna, 73. Heserved his first sentence more than 6000 kilometers away from Moscowand his family, in Siberia. 40 Celsius degrees in the summer, – 40Celsius degrees in the winter. Officially, because of a “lack of space,in any closer location”.

Before Khodorkovsky’s entry into the glass box, a dog sniffs theroom. Then, under the applause of supporters’ applause and their wavingflowers, the two defendants arrive, handcuffed, escorted by policeofficers from the special forces, heavily armed, who are making effortsto appear watching but yawn at the hearing. The area is under highsurveillance. The matter is serious. Khodorkosvky and his partner mightspend twenty years in prison. This time, they are accused of stealing,physically, at least 250 million tons of oil.

The problem is: thevolume of oil which is supposed to have been stolen exceeds the totalproduction of Yukos. “The amount would be enough to fill a train thatcould go three times around the equator,” said Khodorkovsky, amused, atthe opening of his second trial in March. Another inconsistency: Yukoshas paid 40 billion dollars in taxes on the alleged stolen oil. Thecompany was the largest contributor to the Russian budget. Consideringthe accusations as “schizophrenic”, the defence requested a psychiatricexamination of prosecutor. The prosecutor had to admit some”inaccuracies”, “technical errors”. The trial continues.

That day, at the outset of the hearing, Mikhail Khodorkovsky repeats ina soft but firm voice and his constant demand: let the documentsshowing that his company delivered Transneft the allegedly “stolen” oilbe added to the file. Besides, how could it be otherwise? Transneft hasa monopoly for the pipelines and oil transportation on the Russianterritory. A request once more denied by Judge Viktor Danilkine, whohas consistently rejected the defence motions. Khodorkovsky willtherefore not be able to prove his innocence. Without doubt one of themost brilliant, the most Westernized and least flashy member of the newRussian elite, Khodorkovsky is an audacious man. Did not he have crazyprojects in Putin’s Russia: bringing American companies in his capital,fostering relations with the West through his foundation “Open Russia”,daring to defy the head of the Kremlin to take real steps againstcorruption that more than ever is a gangrene up to the summit of power?Did not he also sponsor the Democratic and liberal opposition tocounterbalance the hegemonic ruling party “United Russia”? With hisefficiency, organizational skills, determination, might he not becometomorrow’s leader that the opposition is desperately seeking?

But in relentlessly pursuing him, the State has made him a martyr, oneof those characters from Dostoevsky novels which the Russians like,although they had rather appreciated the first trial against theoligarch, this “nouveau riche”- and even worse, in a country whereanti-Semitism is still alive, who had Jewish origins. And even if it isclear that Khodorkovsky is not a saint, everyone knows he is not triedfor misconduct alleged against him. Otherwise, all the new Russianelite who would be in prison today.

Judicial Farce

Second day of hearing. Big surprise. Attorney Latkhine triumphantlywaves a pack of new documents. The defence requests to examine them.Recess. It turns out that these new pieces of “evidence” of guilt,obtained outside any procedure, were requested the day before by thedefence but refused by the court. Bursts of laughter in the room.Confusion of the prosecutor. Another interruption. A bit embarrassed,the judge accepts the documents. Then comes the time Valeri Latkhinewaited for, he who probably dreams of being decorated by Putin himself,just like the prosecutor of the first trial. Andrei Kraïnov, one ofinnumerable prosecution witnesses, presents himself to the bar. He gotonly a five year suspended sentence in the first trial. He hadcooperated with the prosecution. Embarrassed to be there, he lowers hishead, speaks in a voice barely audible, almost invariably responds toquestions during a day and a half: ‘ia nia znaïou’, ‘ia nia pomniou, “Ido not know”, “I do not remember”.

“Do you know who gave the order totransform the legal structure of Yukos-Moscow? – No, I do not know”,replies the witness. Attorney Latkhine sits down with a knowing look.Nobody understands what he has in mind. Not even Judge ViktorDanilkine, embarrassed by this show as boring as it is deplorable, whoeventually loses his temper: “But what are you talking about?” heabruptly asks the prosecutor.

“I do not know if the accusation knows itself where it is going”, saysVladimir Krasnov, a defence counsel. Like a beaten dog, AttorneyLakhtine resumes the interrogation. “Now, you’re giving answers to thewitness!” cries the irritated the judge who has more than he can takeby this trial that is turning into a judicial farce, and which seemslike it came right out of a Kafka novel. In the aquarium, Khodorkovskydoes not lift an eye. He methodically examines the record of theaccusation. The cros-examination turns into a disaster for theprosecutor. The witness has to even admit that he lied at the firsttrial, and that he does not know the procedures for delivery of oilfrom Yukos to Transneft.

Almost systematically, the prosecutor’s witnesses become those of thedefence: they must agree that it is physically impossible to steal 250million tons of oil. At the end, Khodorkovsky speaks. In a clear andfirm voice, he is going to take apart, in three turns and a fewminutes, two days of hearings. He addresses the judge: “First, youallowed the prosecutor to question a witness him specifying thecharges. Second, you allowed the prosecutor to act outside of thistrial by questioning a man that everybody understood that he knewnothing: nothing about the oil delivery sites from Yukos to Transneft,nothing about the people in charge. Thirdly, you refused to let mespeak during the study of the evidence. The result of all this? Anabsurd scene that is wasting the court’s time. If you had let me speak,if you wanted to know who gave the order to transform the status ofYukos-Moscow, I would have told you.
That’s me. I would have said when, how and why. Vsyo!” “That’s all!”

The audience is delighted. Judge Danilkine wipes his glasses. AttorneyLakhtin picks up piles of files. Without a shadow of visible emotion,Khodorkovsky sits down, slowly drinking a glass of water. Truly adangerous man. -Jean-Baptiste Naudet