Alexander Lebedev witnesses say they were coerced into testifying

Court hears evidence from people who only saw the alleged assault on television

The trial of the businessman Alexander Lebedev has descended into farce as witnesses admitted they had been pressured into attending the court case by investigators.

Mr Lebedev, who is the financial backer of The Independent as well as part-owning the Russian investigative newspaper Novaya Gazeta, is standing trial in Moscow on charges of hooliganism motivated by political hatred, for punching the tycoon Sergei Polonsky on a 2011 television show. If found guilty, he could be jailed for up to five years.

The main witness, Mr Polonsky, has not yet shown up. He has spent most of this year in a Cambodian jail after allegedly throwing local sailors into the sea, but is now believed to be in Israel. Today the judge asked his lawyers to find out whether he would attend.

In Mr Polonsky’s absence, the prosecution has been relying on cameramen from the studio and people who saw the programme on television, some of whom had problems remembering the names of the people involved.

The first witness, Natalia Pakhomenko, had watched the programme on television, and said she remembered little of the content, though had found Mr Polonsky’s behaviour “provocative”. She said she had not wanted to testify in the case. “I went to the Investigative Committee about a completely different matter and they said, ‘Do you remember that television programme? We need witnesses.” She added that she had only come because she was told that she would get into trouble if she did not attend.

Another witness said she was approached by a plainclothes man who asked her whether she had seen the programme. She said she had watched it “out of the corner of her eye,” and was persuaded to be a witness. She said she remembered “clearly” that Mr Lebedev had been sitting the other side of the studio to Mr Polonsky and had to walk past several people before throwing the punch. In fact, the two men were sitting next to each other.

The final witness of the day said he remembered almost nothing of the programme. “I remember that someone hit someone else,” he said.

Genri Reznik, for Mr Lebedev, drew attention to discrepancies between witness statements and the indictment, noting that investigators had frequently changed witness testimony that they saw Mr Lebedev throw two punches and rendered it as “at least two punches”. The distinction is key, because for Mr Lebedev to be convicted on the charge of battery, which he also faces along with the hooliganism charge, he needs to have thrown at least three punches.

The prosecutor told Mr Reznik that there was no difference between “two” and “at least two,” which led to a heated exchange. 

Mr Lebedev has said repeatedly that he believes the case is politically motivated, and was initiated because of his support for Russian opposition figures and backing of Novaya Gazeta.

The trial continues.