Feuding tycoons and pious rustics: Alexander Lebedev’s 'comical' trial hits heights of absurdity


The trial of Alexander Lebedev continued in a surreal vein today, as the court heard from a former billionaire who now lives in the forest as a pious peasant, and it was discussed whether hitting someone in the face is in line with Christian values.

The Russian businessman and financial backer of The Independent is on trial for “hooliganism motivated by political hatred” after punching Sergei Polonsky, a controversial property tycoon, during a televised talk show in 2011. He could face five years in jail if found guilty. The odd nature of the charges, which require prosecutors to prove that Mr Lebedev did indeed act out of “political hatred”, is matched by bizarre goings-on in the courtroom.

Already, the Moscow court has heard from witnesses who say they were approached in the street and asked to testify that they had watched the programme on television. Yesterday, it was the turn of the defence to call witnesses, including another participant in the televised programme. German Sterligov, formerly a successful businessman, withdrew to the Russian countryside nearly a decade ago. He lives in Tolstoyan solitude in a shack with no electricity.

He arrived at court wearing peasant clothes and mud-spattered shoes, and gave his occupation as a shepherd. He said Mr Polonsky had been acting so strangely during the recording of the television show that he had thought the tycoon might be “high on drugs”, and added that he himself had been close to hitting Mr Polonsky. When asked whether that would not have contradicted his religious convictions, he said: “God blesses religious warriors,” adding that it is fine to hit someone who offends you. Asked by the prosecutor whether he would have said the same if a woman had been involved, he looked surprised. “How could a woman offend a man? That’s impossible, by definition,” he said.

Almost all the witnesses in the case so far have said they did not see any political motivation in Mr Lebedev’s actions, and even most of the prosecution witnesses have largely backed Mr Lebedev’s version of events.

“Absolutely no ideological or political questions were discussed during the programme,” said Pavel Selin, one of the programme’s hosts, who also appeared as a witness yesterday.

Yuri Zak, one of Mr Lebedev’s lawyers, said that although there were obvious absurdities about the case, it was nothing unusual. “Unfortunately, many things are normal for Russian justice that shouldn’t be normal,” he said. “The case is comical, though it’s a sad comedy.”

The most notable absence in the courtroom is the man who instigated the charges – Mr Polonsky. His lawyers have told the court that he is unable to attend the hearings because he is not allowed to leave Cambodia, where a court has released him on bail on charges of assaulting local sailors. However, Mr Lebedev’s aides say they have evidence that Mr Polonsky left Cambodia long ago and is now in Israel. The tycoon has been active on social networks, publishing photographs of himself in beachside locations. Yesterday he wrote on his Twitter account that he would answer “any other question” but refused to give his location. Mr Zak said it was “ridiculous” to try the case without Mr Polonsky’s attendance because only he could explain how the “political hatred” supposedly manifested itself.

“This kind of common fracas would normally be dealt with by a local police officer,” said Dmitry Muratov, editor in chief of Novaya Gazeta, the investigative newspaper that is part-owned by Mr Lebedev. “This case has been under the personal control of [Alexander] Bastrykin, the head of the Investigative Committee. If Lebedev wasn’t so loud politically, and didn’t support Novaya, there would be much less attention around this.”

Mr Muratov, who has attended most of the trial hearings, said proceedings had bordered on the farcical. “I’ve seen a lot of absurd things in my time,” he said. “But to have witnesses who can’t remember anything, and admit in court that they were recruited when getting off the number 75 bus – that’s something new.”

The trial has now been adjourned for three weeks. The judge granted Mr Lebedev permission to leave Russia during the break in hearings. When the trial resumes, on 21 June, it is expected to reach a swift conclusion.

Prominent economist flees Russia

One of Russia’s most prominent economists has fled the country, saying he fears he could be arrested and jailed as part of an investigation into the jailed tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, formerly Russia’s richest man.

Sergei Guriev, who ran Moscow’s New Economic School, was known as a respected liberal economic voice and an adviser to Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev’s team, which has lost out in Kremlin struggles to a more hardline faction since President Vladimir Putin returned to the presidency last year.

Mr Guriev has left all his positions and moved to Paris, where his wife, also an economist, moved three years ago. “She turned out to be a wiser and more sane person than I was,” he told the Associated Press, saying they had argued about the direction in which Russia was headed. “I was less cynical, she was more.”

After investigators searched his office and seized documents and emails, Mr Guriev said he feared he could end up arrested on “very bogus grounds”.

He co-authored a 2011 report into the prosecution of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, formerly the head of the Yukos oil giant but in jail since 2003 in a case widely seen as politically motivated. He has also backed the prominent Kremlin critic and anti-corruption blogger Alexei Navalny, who is currently on trial for embezzlement in charges that also have a political dimension.