Alexander Lebedev: 'Russia is a different country now – I have not lost hope of justice'

A fracas with a fellow Russian tycoon more than a year ago will see the father of 'Independent' owner Evgeny in court next week. He talks to Shaun Walker

A court hearing will begin next week in the case against Alexander Lebedev, which could see the Russian businessman jailed for up to five years, on charges that have been widely described as politically motivated. Mr Lebedev, whose son Evgeny owns The Independent, i and the Evening Standard, says that he is "psychologically prepared" for a jail sentence, but hopes that he can "set a precedent that innocent people can be acquitted by a Russian court."

The charges relate to an incident broadcast on Russian television in September 2011, when Mr Lebedev punched Sergei Polonsky, a controversial property tycoon, knocking him off his stool during a recorded studio debate on the global economy.

As well as bringing charges of common assault and causing bodily harm, Russian investigators have labelled the punch a case of "hooliganism motivated by hatred of a political group", which carries a sentence of up to five years in prison.

The charge is under the same article used against the punk trio Pussy Riot, who were jailed for two years for performing a "punk prayer" in Moscow's main cathedral last year.

Investigators announced earlier this month that the case has been sent to trial, and Moscow's Ostankinsky Court is due to begin preliminary hearings on Thursday morning. In a strange twist, Mr Polonsky himself is unlikely to appear at the hearings as he was arrested on New Year's Day in Cambodia, after allegedly forcing several local sailors to jump into the sea at knifepoint. He has reportedly agreed a settlement payment of $20,000 (£12,500) with the sailors for them to withdraw the allegations, but he remains in jail in the southern Cambodian city of Sihanoukville.

However, Mr Lebedev says that Mr Polonsky has become a peripheral figure in the court case. "His role now is merely tangential, and in fact his associates have even come to me and said that he wants to settle with me, and to come to some kind of deal," he says. Even if Mr Polonsky retracts his claims against Mr Lebedev, the official case against him, which insists that the attack was premeditated and motivated by political hatred, can still go ahead.

The punch took place during a recording of a programme on NTV, a Kremlin-controlled television station. Mr Lebedev alleges that Mr Polonsky had been threatening him and others in the studio for a long time before the punch, which he says was in self-defence. While he accepts that he perhaps should face action for the punch, the court case as it stands "bears absolutely no relation to reality", he says.

"It's ridiculous. How could I have political hatred for this person? I had never seen him before. He was just behaving badly and I acted to stop him."

Mr Lebedev says that the real cause of the case against him is anger among top Russian officials about Novaya Gazeta, the Russian newspaper in which he co-owns a stake with the former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. Novaya is famous for its hard-hitting reports, and several of its reporters have been murdered, including Anna Politkovskaya, who was shot in the stairwell of her Moscow apartment in 2006. Recently, Alexander Bastrykin, the powerful head of Russia's Investigative Committee, publicly threatened Sergei Sokolov, the newspaper's deputy editor, and later drove him to a forest where Mr Sokolov alleges Mr Bastrykin made threats on his life. The official denies this, though admits rebuking Mr Sokolov, and Mr Lebedev sees the investigation into him as part of the same chain.

"I think it is something inside Bastrykin's head," he said. "He hates Novaya and he hates me." He added that he has faced a number of threats to his businesses, the most notable of which is the National Reserve Bank, and that there are some "interlinking moments" where people aware of his precarious political situation have been trying to seize his assets.

"I could have a big wall, with photos, like in a Hollywood movie, of all the people that have been attacking me and the links between them," he says. President Vladimir Putin referred to the attack as "hooliganism" shortly after it occurred, which could have acted as a spur for investigators to take action.

The tycoon said that although it is clear the case is political, he still has hope that he will be able to convince Russia's notoriously pliant courts that he is not guilty of the charges. "Putin is right when he says it isn't 1937 now," says Mr Lebedev. "It's not 1968, it's not even the 1980s. It's a different country, and maybe we shouldn't lose hope that justice will be done. But of course I have to be psychologically prepared for the worst."

Mr Lebedev said that none of his media holdings will suffer if the worst-case scenario comes to pass and he does get sent to jail. He says Novaya Gazeta has become self-sustaining, while The Independent and Evening Standard are owned by his son Evgeny and will not be affected.

"They will carry on as normal," he said. "There is a plan for The Independent and we will go through with it whatever happens to me."

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Recruitment Genius: Production & Quality Control Assistant

£19000 - £21000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An excellent opportunity for a ...

Ashdown Group: Group HR Advisor - Kettering - £32,000

£28000 - £32000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Group HR Advisor with an established...

Guru Careers: HR Manager / HR Generalist

£40 - 50k (DOE) + Bonus: Guru Careers: We are seeking a HR Manager / HR Genera...

Recruitment Genius: Human Resources Officer

£24000 - £28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This role will cover all areas ...

Day In a Page

The saffron censorship that governs India: Why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression

The saffron censorship that governs India

Zareer Masani reveals why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression
Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

Supreme Court rules Dominic Grieve's ministerial veto was invalid
Distressed Zayn Malik fans are cutting themselves - how did fandom get so dark?

How did fandom get so dark?

Grief over Zayn Malik's exit from One Direction seemed amusing until stories of mass 'cutting' emerged. Experts tell Gillian Orr the distress is real, and the girls need support
The galaxy collisions that shed light on unseen parallel Universe

The cosmic collisions that have shed light on unseen parallel Universe

Dark matter study gives scientists insight into mystery of space
The Swedes are adding a gender-neutral pronoun to their dictionary

Swedes introduce gender-neutral pronoun

Why, asks Simon Usborne, must English still struggle awkwardly with the likes of 's/he' and 'they'?
Disney's mega money-making formula: 'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan

Disney's mega money-making formula

'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan
Lobster has gone mainstream with supermarket bargains for £10 or less - but is it any good?

Lobster has gone mainstream

Anthea Gerrie, raised on meaty specimens from the waters around Maine, reveals how to cook up an affordable feast
Easter 2015: 14 best decorations

14 best Easter decorations

Get into the Easter spirit with our pick of accessories, ornaments and tableware
Paul Scholes column: Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season

Paul Scholes column

Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season
Inside the Kansas greenhouses where Monsanto is 'playing God' with the future of the planet

The future of GM

The greenhouses where Monsanto 'plays God' with the future of the planet
Britain's mild winters could be numbered: why global warming is leaving UK chillier

Britain's mild winters could be numbered

Gulf Stream is slowing down faster than ever, scientists say
Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

Donation brings total raised by Homeless Veterans campaign to at least £1.25m
Oh dear, the most borrowed book at Bank of England library doesn't inspire confidence

The most borrowed book at Bank of England library? Oh dear

The book's fifth edition is used for Edexcel exams
Cowslips vs honeysuckle: The hunt for the UK’s favourite wildflower

Cowslips vs honeysuckle

It's the hunt for UK’s favourite wildflower
Child abuse scandal: Did a botched blackmail attempt by South African intelligence help Cyril Smith escape justice?

Did a botched blackmail attempt help Cyril Smith escape justice?

A fresh twist reveals the Liberal MP was targeted by the notorious South African intelligence agency Boss