Former Yukos chief slams fraud charges as 'absurd'

Speaking from a medieval-looking metal cage in a cramped Moscow courtroom Mikhail Khodorkovsky, Russia's richest man, ridiculed the fraud charges against him yesterday in a powerful
tour de force that embarrassed the Kremlin.

Speaking from a medieval-looking metal cage in a cramped Moscow courtroom Mikhail Khodorkovsky, Russia's richest man, ridiculed the fraud charges against him yesterday in a powerful tour de force that embarrassed the Kremlin.

Addressing his accusers for the first time since he was arrested at gunpoint on an icy Siberian runway almost nine months ago, the articulate oligarch dismissed the plethora of charges as simply "absurd." "I shall prove their groundlessness not only from the point of view of the law ... I will also prove them to be absurd from an ethical point of view," he said.

Charged with fraud and embezzlement to the tune of $1bn, Mr Khodorkovsky claimed he would easily prove his innocence and mounted a staunch defence of Yukos, the embattled oil giant which he used to run.

Facing a series of crippling back tax bills, the company is perilously close to bankruptcy but continues to try to work out a settlement with a so far unreceptive government.

Mr Khodorkovsky has offered to give up a large stake in the firm owned by himself and his associates but his proposal has gone unanswered. Yesterday he said that far from being a tax sinner, Yukos had actually handed over far more money to the state than most other Russian companies.

"It is difficult to understand how a company that is Russia's second biggest tax payer after Gazprom and which was subject to 500 audits a year ... finds out after four years that is has to pay more. In my opinion, society has not had any illusions about the underlying political motives in this case for a long time," he added, referring to oft-repeated claims that the trial is a Kremlin-backed attempt to punish him for his unsanctioned political forays.

Looking gaunt and wearing his trademark T-shirt and jeans the bespectacled billionaire - said by Forbes magazine to be worth $15.2bn - claimed he was a scapegoat for the botched privatisation process of the 1990s. "I will prove that what is happening is an awkward attempt to blame me for the faults of the privatisation laws in the 1990s."

Prosecutors claim that he and his associates were part of a "criminal group" whose sole purpose was to illegally snap up large stakes in major Russian firms during the anarchic auctions of that period.

Mr Khodorkovsky denies all charges.

Platon Lebedev, his close associate who is being tried alongside him on similar charges, also addressed the court yesterday. Looking wan and drained, and said by his doctors to be seriously ill, he claimed the charges against him had been fabricated and that he too was the victim of a political vendetta.

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