Charges are concocted to keep me behind bars, says Khodorkovsky

Trial descends into farce as fumes from oligarch's jar of oil paralyse court
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The Independent Online

Jailed oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky began the defence case in his second trial yesterday, saying the charges against him were "political and corruptly motivated".

Yesterday's hearing, at the central Moscow court where the case has been playing out for more than a year, frequently threatened to descend into farce, and was livened up by Mr Khodorkovsky's lawyers bringing a jar of crude oil into the courtroom in an attempt to show the absurdity of the prosecution's charges.

Formerly Russia's richest man and head of Yukos, its biggest oil company, Mr Khodorkovsky has been behind bars since his arrest in 2003. This trial, on charges of embezzlement and money laundering, could see him kept in prison for another 22 years. The charges state that Mr Khodorkovsky and his business partner, Platon Lebedev, embezzled all the crude oil produced by Yukos over a five-year period and laundered the proceeds.

Mr Khodorkovsky, speaking from inside the glass cage in the courtroom that has been dubbed "the aquarium", said the charges were "prompted by my opponents' worries of me becoming free". Mr Khodorkovsky had started to support opposition political parties before his arrest, and there is a worry that if released he may become a figurehead for opposition to the current Kremlin regime.

As the court session opened, the defence tabled motions for the state prosecutors to be removed from the case, as well as for the judge, Viktor Danilkin, to dismiss himself, due to repeated violations of legal procedure. Mr Danilkin rejected both demands.

As Mr Khodorkovsky prepared to give his testimony after lunch, the courtroom quickly filled with toxic fumes. It soon became apparent that these were emanating from a jar of crude oil. The former oligarch then proceeded with a demonstration, "selling" the oil to his lawyer for one rouble. The prosecution continually mixed up the physical transfer of actual oil, and the transfer of the ownership rights to oil, he said.

"These things could only be mixed up by either an incompetent person or a dishonest person," said Mr Khodorkovsky, as the courtroom burst into laughter at the theatre. "I don't see anything funny about bringing flammable liquid into a room with lots of people in it and only one door," snapped the judge, ordering bailiffs to remove the oil from the room.

Mr Khodorkovsky is expected to continue his summing up of the case so far today, and in the coming weeks the defence will have the chance to call witnesses. His lawyers say they have a list of more than 400 witnesses that they want to call to the stand, though it is unclear how many will agree to appear. They include the Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, and many other high-ranking Russian government officials. Last week, Mr Khodorkovsky's lawyers told The Independent that they also plan to call several current and former heads of state from Western countries, as well as CEOs of major international oil companies, to give evidence.

Mr Khodorkovsky last month exclusively provided The Independent with questions he would like to ask Mr Putin as part of the court case. One of them noted that prosecutors say he ran Yukos not as a company but as a criminal group. "When you, in 2003, personally congratulated Yukos for its successes in commercial and social activities, is this what you were referring to?" asked Mr Khodorkovsky.

"Some people thought that these questions were just a PR exercise," said Vadim Klyuvgant, one of Mr Khodorkovsky's lawyers. "They are not. They are not political questions; they are real, concrete questions that have a strong bearing on the case."