Vasily Aleksanyan

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The Independent Online

Human rights activists said the former Yukos vice-president Vasily Aleksanyan, who died on 3 October of Aids-related illnesses at the age of 39, would have lived longer if the authorities had not kept him in prison for nearly three years on trumped-up charges.

Aleksanyan fought a protracted legal battle with the authorities before being freed on bail in 2009 to seek medical treatment. "It was practically a murder," the activist Valery Borshchyov said. Supporters of Aleksanyan and his former boss at the oil company Yukos, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, believed that charges of embezzlement and tax evasion against Aleksanyan amounted to punishment by the Kremlin for Khodorkovsky's political and commercial ambitions.

Aleksanyan, who had served as Yukos's head lawyer, left the company after Khodorkovsky's arrest in 2003 but returned in 2006 as an executive vice president to work with Yukos's court-appointed bankruptcy manager. A month later, he was arrested, and a few months after his detention, he learned he was HIV-positive. He also began to lose eyesight in his one good eye; he had been blind in the other since a childhood accident.

Aleksanyan and his lawyers said the authorities used his illness as a bargaining chip, threatening to withhold treatment unless he testified against Khodorkovsky and his jailed business partner Platon Lebedev.

"I was put in frightful cells, that recall the time of Stalin's jailers," he told a Moscow court in 2008. "They are damp and filthy and these people know my immune system is dead."

Born on 15 December 1971, Aleksanyan graduated from Moscow State University before going to Harvard law school. He worked for the American law firm Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton, and in 1995 became head of the legal department for the British investment firm Sun Group, leaving a year later to head Yukos's legal department.

Following his arrest in 2006, international pressure grew to release him on bail for health reasons – in addition to full-blown Aids and his fading eyesight, he suffered from liver cancer, lymphoma and tuberculosis. The Russian authorities three times ignored rulings by the European Court of Human Rights, but finally, in 2008, he was released with bail set at 50 million rubles but he was repeatedly summoned to court, where he wore a face mask and could barely stand up. The case against him was only dropped last year when the statute of limitations ran out.

Aleksanyan "lived as if on a volcano" during his final years, Yury Shmidt,a lawyer for Khodorkovsky, said. "He lived all the time in such a state that if the slightest infection occured, he could die in a second." A Yukos statement said that "Vasily was very talented, one of the best persons in all regards, as a professional, leader and as a friend."