Westerners under threat as Moscow pursues Yukos claims

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The Independent Online

Fears of wide-scale indictments are growing among Western nationals who once worked for the Russian oil giant Yukos, after Russian prosecutors issued more criminal charges this week.

The Prosecutor General's Office has accused Steven Theedle, the former chief executive of Yukos, his fellow directors Bruce Misamore and David Godfrey, and Tim Osborne, an adviser to the collapsed oil giant's majority shareholders, of stripping the company of its foreign assets.

Mr Osborne, a director of GML, Yukos's largest shareholder with a 53 per cent stake, warned yesterday that all former employees of Yukos who do not toe the Kremlin line are at risk of prosecution. Westerners who advised Yukos and its owners, Mikhail Khodorkovsky and Leonid Nevzlin, include Lord Owen, the former Labour foreign secretary. He served as a director of Yukos International, an affiliate of the once mighty oil group, from February 2002 until January 2005.

At the start of the month, a Moscow court declared Yukos bankrupt because of its inability to pay billions of dollars in tax claims. Analysts believe the move paved the way for the Kremlin to carve up the remaining assets of what was once Russia's biggest company.

Since then, the focus has shifted to Yukos's foreign assets, the bulk of what it has left, which are held by Dutch-registered companies and consist of a Lithuanian refinery and a Slovak oil pipeline that are worth a combined $1.6bn (£851m).

Earlier this week, an Amsterdam court refused to recognise the Russian bankruptcy of Yukos. This made it more difficult for the Russian authorities, one of its creditors, to get their hands on the group's assets abroad. On the same day, Moscow prosecutors unveiled the charges against Messrs Theedle, Misamore, Godfrey and Osborne, leading to suggestions that the two events were linked.

The four men are still closely involved with GML (formerly Group Menatep) a Gibraltar-registered company via which Mr Khodorkovsky and his associates controlled Yukos. It too features as a creditor of Yukos's foreign assets and has a claim over cash raised from their disposal. Andrew Neff, an energy analyst at the consultants Global Insight, said: "The fight over Yukos's foreign assets boils down to an attempt by Russian prosecutors to ensure that revenues from their sale is denied to GML."