Court fight begins for Russia's richest man

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The Independent Online

The long-awaited trial of Russia's wealthiest citizen, oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, began with his supporters demanding he should have the one thing that nobody expects he will get: a fair trial.

The long-awaited trial of Russia's wealthiest citizen, oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, began with his supporters demanding he should have the one thing that nobody expects he will get: a fair trial.

Day one of his trial was brief, short on substance and long on theatre. Dressed in jeans and a brown leather jacket, Mr Khodorkovsky looked relaxed as he took up his position in a metal cage - standard practice for Russian courts - alongside his co-accused, Platon Lebedev, another major shareholder in Yukos, the oil firm that Mr Khodorkovsky used to lead.

Both men face charges of tax evasion and fraud; in Mr Khodorkovsky's case the figure he is accused of embezzling amounts to one billion dollars.

Human rights activists argue, however, that the charges are the Kremlin's way of punishing Mr Khodorkovsky for his criticism of president Vladimir Putin and his own nascent political ambitions.

Security was tight. Both men were constantly surrounded by armed guards who had accompanied them to Moscow's Meshansky district court from the notoriously overcrowded Matrosskaya Tishina prison where they are being held.

The case is being heard by three female judges who agreed to a request from the defence to adjourn the trial until at least 21 June, which is the earliest date that Mr Khodorkovsky's main lawyer can attend for medical reasons.

Russian TV pictured Mr Khodorkovsky and Mr Lebedev smiling and joking in their cage. "Everything is OK, you can see for yourselves," Mr Khodorkovsky said. "We haven't seen each other for almost a year. Now we have a chance to talk. About everything but mostly about our families."

Mr Khodorkovsky was arrested at gunpoint on a Siberian runway last October, while Mr Lebedev has been in prison since last July, despite the fact that both are accused of white collar crimes.

The court refused a request from Mr Lebedev to be allowed to go home after each day's proceedings. He claims he is suffering from ill health.

If speaking from inside a cage seemed incongruous to Russia's richest and 22nd richest man, neither betrayed unease. Mr Khodorkovsky is worth $15bn and Mr Lebedev $1.8bn.

Mr Khodorkovsky read from legal documents as the trial proceeded and took careful notes. He frequently shot reassuring smiles at his elderly parents, Boris and Marina, who sat nearby.

Outside the court, about 40 students wearing red t-shirts bearing Mr Khodorkovsky's picture brandished banners calling for a fair and open trial. Robert Amsterdam, one of Mr Khodorkovsky's lawyers, said there was little chance of that.

"I am expecting nothing more than I've seen in the past," he argued. "This is a country that destroys its finest company while its senior members languish in jail illegally.

"They are going to be found guilty. We know the outcome. It is a show trial to help the government expropriate Yukos." Yukos shares have fallen sharply in recent days as analysts braced for a court decision on 23 June whether it must pay $3.4bn in back taxes immediately or not, which could bankrupt the firm

If found guilty, Mr Khodorkovsky and Mr Lebedev face up to ten years in prison for their parts in the scandal.

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