Alexander Lebedev appears in court over punching property tycoon Sergei Polonsky on Russian television show

 

Moscow

Alexander Lebedev, the Russian businessman whose family owns The Independent, appeared in a Moscow courtroom today to hear charges read against him that could land him in prison for up to five years.

Mr Lebedev is standing trial for hooliganism and political hatred, over punching a controversial property tycoon on a television programme in 2011. He has called the charges politically motivated.

Inside the tiny north Moscow courtroom, the state prosecutor read the charges against Mr Lebedev, and objected to a request from the businessman that he be allowed to travel to London and Italy in the coming days to settle a number of business matters and see his son Evgeny for his birthday. The judge, however, granted the request, noting that Mr Lebedev had so far honoured the terms of the court, which forbid him from leaving Moscow. He was warned that he could be remanded in custody if he does not return to Moscow on the agreed date next week. The judge also adjourned the case until 20 May, due to the illness of one of Mr Lebedev’s lawyers.

“I’m pleased of course that I’m able to go to London,” said Mr Lebedev after the hearing. “But I think it’s too early to read this as any kind of sign.” The businessman has previously stated that he believes the charges against him are part of a personal vendetta by top Russian officials angry at his support for Novaya Gazeta, an investigative Russian newspaper that he part-owns with the last Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev.

Asked by the judge to confirm whether he understood the charges against him, Mr Lebedev refused to speak, saying he would answer the question at the next hearing.

Mr Lebedev punched Sergei Polonsky during a recorded television programme on the state-controlled NTV station in late 2011. Mr Lebedev says Mr Polonsky had been provoking him verbally prior to the punch, which knocked the property developer from his stool. The current charges against Mr Lebedev suggest that he did not simply punch Mr Polonsky but acted out of “hatred for a political class”, a distinction which makes the possible punishment significantly more severe.

In a side drama, Mr Polonsky has spent the majority of this year in a Cambodian prison, after allegedly forcing a group of local sailors to jump into the sea during an altercation near an island he owns in the country. In recent weeks he has fled to Switzerland, however. His lawyers did not appear at today’s hearing, but the case can go ahead without him. Other “victims” have also appeared in the case, including a number of women who say they watched the incident on television and were traumatised by it.

Mr Lebedev has been collecting character references from friends and acquaintances both in Russia and the West, and the court has been sent letters of support from well-known actors and celebrities including Stephen Fry, Keira Knightley, John Malkovich and Ralph Fiennes. “They are all busy people, but they are ready to come to the court to testify if their schedules allow it,” said Mr Lebedev today.

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