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

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The Independent Online

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."