Kafkaesque. The former Russian oil tycoon, who stood up to Putin, is back before his judges. Here is the story. [The following is a translation of an article published in the French publication Le Point.]
Le Point, October 15, 2009
Accused Khodorkovsky, Stand Up!
From our special envoy Marc Nexon
He stands up, opens his spiral notebook and pulls out 3 sheets of paper he has scribbled with his fine handwriting. He pats the microphone installed in his glass cage. “Can you hear me?” he asks, addressing the judge. Then he starts with a clear voice: “I know that in his eyes I embody absolute evil, but I would like to ask quietly a few questions to the witness of the prosecution…” Mikhail Khodorkovsky, 46 years old, formerly the richest man of Russia, has a pale face and his gray hair is cut short. He is wearing a black sweatshirt, rather wide jeans, and a belt made of a red thin cord and has plastic shoes on. After each question he takes a sip of water. He smiles. He savours the moment. He will need only 30 minutes to dismantle the charge against him that is the theft of 350 million tons of oil between 1998 and 2003. It is almost the equivalent of the annual Russian oil production! A grotesque charge at the heart of a trial opened seven months ago. This trial’s aim is to maintain behind bars the former oil tycoon, who has become the most famous political prisoner of Russia.
That day, Khodorkvosky scores. With no consequences. He knows thatthe State is holding on to him. And it does not want to let him go.”Look, some businessmen were heavily sentenced, to 150 years in theUnited States”, recently stated Russian President Dmitry Medvedev aboutthe case.
His crime? He stood up to Vladimir Putin in the early 2000’s. How?He signed checks of several tens of millions iof dollars to theopposition. At that time, the man is worth 15 billion dollars. He isintelligent and cultivates Western looks with no tie and wearsthin-framed glasses. He is the head of Yukos oil company, the mostpowerful company in the country, even able to hire managers fromAmerica.
For the regime, Khodorkovsky became a threat. He was arrested onOctober 25, 2003, right off the plane. Igor Sechin, former KGB andPutin’s devoted servant, conceived his case. A godsend: the Russianoligarchs have all built their industrial empires through this riggedprivatization. The oil tycoon is not an exception to the rule. Thesentence falls: eight years of prison for tax fraud. He was transferredto a Siberian prison, near Chita, in the land of the former Gulag. Anicy period punctuated by punishments and episodes of solitaryconfinement.
As for his company, it sunk. It was dismantled for thebenefit of Putin’s new oligarchs.
Judicial Farce. But that’s not all. As he could hope to be released bythe end of 2011, on the eve of the next presidential election, he isagain facing his judges. He is threatened, this time, by a penalty oftwenty-two years of imprisonment! “They want to keep me until mydeath”. The prosecution case? A jumble of 4000 pages seized at theheadquarters of his former group including dry-cleaning receipts,trivial notes from secretaries indicating where they had put away thekeys to their offices. “An accumulation of nonsense,” said his lawyer,Vadim Klyuvgant. And eventually, a ridiculous complaint for oilembezzlement for a value of 25 billion dollars. “I sincerely tried toprevent the investigators from making themselves ridiculous,” saysKhodorkovski. In vain…
But the judicial farce takes place every day at the Khamovnicheskicourt in Moscow, on the third floor of a dilapidated building.According to a well-established ritual, around 10 am, three policemenenter room N° 7. They release a German shepherd in charge of detectingwho knows what. Then spectators are asked to group themselves in thestaircase. Coming down from upstairs, three members of the SpecialForces dressed in black, Kalashnikovs slung over their shoulders. Thencome, after them, Mikhail Khodorkovsky and Platon Lebedev, anotherformer Yukos manager, prosecuted for the same complaints. Both havetheir wrists handcuffed and are escorted by two policemen. There is aburst of applause in the courtroom. The defendants respond with a smileand sit down in the “aquarium”, a cell with bulletproof glass,especially designed for them with two openings allowing them tocommunicate with their lawyers. “The policemen on duty can heareverything they say,” says Elena Lipster, one of the defenders.
That day, the courtroom, as small as a classroom, is quickly packed. Awoman has put yellow roses on the desk of the lawyers. Khodorkovsky’sparents are there, sitting on a bench. Boris, the father,physically-weak, sends a wink to his son. His mother, MarinaFilippovna, 73 years old, sketches on her calendar the portrait ofmembers of the accusation, caricaturing them with angel wings. “If thetrial lingers on, it might mean that they do not agree at the top ofthe state,” she reassures herself. Nearby, there is also a high schoolmate whom Khordorkovsky greets with a friendly wave. And supporterslike Natella, a small retiree wearing a golden jacket. “My girlfriendsthink I’m crazy, but I’m here because this man wanted to defenddemocracy.”
Then come the prosecutors, including Valeri Lakhtine, a bony facestooped in his royal blue uniform. To his left, sits his assistantdressed in a miniskirt, wearing suede boots, and constantly readjustingher ring adorned with a black stone. Finally comes the judge, VictorDanilkine, known for his phrase: “Speak more slowly so that the Clerkcan take notes!”
And facing them, the witness of the day, Eugene Rybin, a big ruddy manstrapped in a striped suit, former manager of a firm bought by Yukos.The day before, he accused Khodorkovsky of having attempted four timesto murder him. He also accuses him to have orchestrated the theft ofoil by trickery with the price. The only problem is: there is noevidence to backup his allegations. “Have you had any psychologicalpressure to testify in this regard?” asked the prosecutor, anxious tovindicate himself. “Not at all, I have done everything possible tospeed up the investigation. “Everyone knows he’s a crook!” whispersKhodorkovsky’s mother. “An interesting client at last!” says in triumphin the corridor a journalist from RIA Novosti, the Russian news agency.
Now Khodorkovsky seeks permission to examine the witness. “Don’t getangry but I would like to discuss with you since you say you have knownthe oil industry for twenty years. »Do you know the scientific name ofthe product coming out of an oil well? – I don’t know. – The percentageof water which is contained in this product? – I don’t know. – Does theUrals grade for crude oil ring a bell to you? – No. The formermillionaire turns to the judge: “It’s the equivalent of the letter Afor someone who learns how to write.” “Stop humiliating the witness!”growls the prosecutor almost jumping off his chair. Khodorkovsky thendetails the flow of oil all the way to the pipelines. And the witnesssuddenly admits it seems difficult to steal large quantities of oil.There, he is trapped. “Brilliant demonstration! The prosecution witnessbecomes the one of the defence!” exults lawyer Vadim Klyuvgant. One ofhis colleagues gets up and rushes to the blonde from RIA Novosti andasks: “You have noted that, haven’t you?”
The prosecutor Valeri Lakhtine drops his pen and takes a look at hiswitness, swinging his head from right to left. He is shattered.
The session ends. Pensive, the judge looks at the blind of a windowover his glasses, stifles a yawn and looks at his watch. “The trialresumes tomorrow,” he says. The prosecutor closes his laptop that henever looked at, and strides off with tons of documents in his arms.Both defendants are hysterical with laughter. Khodorkovsky even bowsbefore the witness like a champion who thanks the loser. The witnessleaves the room, furious. “We can see that in prison they have time toprepare their defence … You will see, they will be found guilty,” hesays, striking back.
In a corner of the court, a commando dressed in black, in charge ofbringing the defendants back to their cells speaks up: “What a bore,here! At least in the Caucasus, there’s some shooting!”
With Katia Swarovskaya (Moscow)