Lawyers fear former chief of Yukos could be assassinated in prison

Political enemies could orchestrate attacks when Khodorkovsky starts his jail sentence. Tim Webb reports
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The Independent Online

Fears are growing that Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the former chief executive of Russian oil giant Yukos, could be murdered after he is sentenced next week.

Fears are growing that Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the former chief executive of Russian oil giant Yukos, could be murdered after he is sentenced next week.

His lawyers say it is a foregone conclusion he will be found guilty of tax evasion, and they expect him to receive a sentence of up to 10 years in a labour camp, probably in Siberia.

But concern is mounting among his legal team and supporters over his safety. Since his arrest in October 2003, Mr Khodorkovsky has been held in prisons run by the FSB, the successor to the KGB, and the Ministry of Justice. These have offered some protection to him from politically orchestrated attacks by other prisoners or guards.

However, if he is convicted, Mr Khodorkovsky will be handed over to the Ministry of the Interior, which runs Russia's labour camps, many located in remote parts of the country. His legal team is concerned that he could be seen as "out of sight, and out of mind" and that his political enemies may take the opportunity to have him killed.

His supporters are also worried that once the year-long and highly public court case - which they call a "show trial" - is over, he will be of no further use to the Russian President, Vladimir Putin.

Since Mr Khodorkovsky's arrest, Yukos has been handed $27bn (£14bn) of back-tax bills, which it cannot pay. As a result, the oil group has been forced to sell off its most valuable asset, its operating subsidiary Yuganskneftegaz, for a fraction of its value. Its remaining assets are also expected to be seized.

Political analysts say that the campaign against Yukos and Mr Khodorkovsky, its largest shareholder, is his punishment for becoming involved in politics. Soon after coming to power five years ago, Mr Putin made an agreement with the owners of Russia's largest privatised businesses - the so-called "oligarchs' pact" - not to reverse their non-transparent privatisations in return for their not interfering in politics.

Officials from the prosecutor's office say that Mr Khodorkovsky stole hundreds of millions of dollars from the country by taking advantage of loopholes to avoid paying taxes.

Bob Amsterdam, an international attorney acting for Mr Khodorkovsky, said: "There are no laws in Russia. The only organised criminal group and relationship is between the criminal investigators and the prosecutor's department."

Menatep, which holds Mr Khodorkovsky and his associates' Yukos shares, is also preparing to take legal action against key figures in the Russian government for alleged insider trading. Lawyers are examining spikes in trading in Yukos shares before the government announced the new back-tax bills last year. Legal action could be launched later this month, but it is not clear in which jurisdiction this would take place.

Mr Amsterdam confirmed: "They will never be safe from real justice. They will be pursued for justice in any available form."

Menatep has already launched a $28bn compensation claim against the government under the Energy Charter Treaty, a political agreement signed by Russia to encourage international co-operation on energy issues.