The businessman Alexander Lebedev told a Russian court that he did not understand the accusations against him of “hooliganism motivated by political hatred” that could see him jailed for up to five years.
Mr Lebedev, who is the financial backer of The Independent, told the judge at Moscow’s Ostakinsky District Court that the accusations against him are “completely fabricated” and “incomprehensible”.
Mr Lebedev is standing trial for an incident on a televised chat show in 2011 in which he punched the property tycoon Sergei Polonsky during a debate on the international financial crisis.
Mr Lebedev says he was provoked by Mr Polonsky, who he says was verbally threatening him and behaving provocatively. The prosecution alleges his punch was a hate crime, motivated by “hatred of a political class”. The political hatred dimension to the accusations is key as it means that the jail sentence for a guilty verdict could be measured in years rather than weeks.
Yesterday’s court session was the first proper hearing in the case, and involved two witnesses who had been in the studio at the time of the fracas. The first, Anna Savina, had asked a question to the studio guests immediately prior to Mr Lebedev’s punch. Although she could not remember the name of the show, she said Mr Polonsky had acted like “a spoiled child” and that Mr Lebedev was “restrained, but behaved like a real man”. Her repeated insistence that she believed “any normal person” would have responded in the same way as Mr Lebedev appeared to irritate the prosecutors.
Ms Savina’s testimony prompted giggles among the benches of journalists and Mr Lebedev’s supporters in court, prompting the judge to intervene and threaten to throw people out if they could not remain silent.
Mr Polonsky was not present at the hearing. He has spent the majority of this year in a Cambodian jail after an incident over the New Year when he allegedly pushed several local sailors into the sea. He was released on bail and is believed to be in Switzerland.
His lawyer, Alexander Dobrovinsky, said he did not know whether Mr Polonsky would come to the hearings. “It depends on a number of factors, which are too intimate for me to disclose,” he said outside the courtroom.
Mr Lebedev’s legal team has said that it will be senseless to come to a verdict in the case without Mr Polonsky’s presence in court.
The case resumes on Thursday.