Khodorkovsky 'a victim of vendetta by Kremlin' as new charges are brought

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The Independent Online

The Kremlin has been accused of waging a vendetta against Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the jailed billionaire, after it brought new charges against him, accusing him of embezzling and laundering up to $25bn (£12.8bn).

If found guilty of the new charges, Russia's wealthiest prison inmate could be jailed for a further 15 years, a fate that would consign President Vladimir Putin's rival to more of what he has already endured: an obscure and miserable existence in a Siberian penal colony.

Khodorkovsky, once Russia's richest man, has already spent 1,200 days in custody, much of it behind bars in a town built on a uranium mine 3,000 miles east of Moscow. In 2005, a Moscow court found him and a business associate guilty of large-scale tax fraud and evasion and sentenced both to eight-year jail terms.

In the Kremlin's eyes, he was a latter-day Al Capone who got his just desserts after grabbing the country's best assets through questionable means before biting the hand that had allowed him to get rich.

But his supporters saw him as a political martyr punished for opposing Mr Putin and his authoritarian style of governance in what they labelled as a Stalinist-style show trial. Either way, the bespectacled oil tycoon must have thought things couldn't get any worse.

Yesterday, however, he discovered they could when he was charged with embezzling and laundering a sum of money that would make even the most ostentatious of oligarchs blush.

According to prosecutors, Khodorkovsky and his associates used Yukos, the once-powerful oil company he ran, as "a washing machine" for an endless supply of dirty money. Prosecutors suggested that a web of offshore trading companies under his control operated a complex scheme that saw oil sold within Yukos at one price before it was sold on at a very different price.

Khodorkovsky's lawyers said their client regarded the charges as "insane and absurd", claiming they were the product of a mind that was either "mad or drunk". "His patience has reached its end in terms of the process that he has been put through," Robert Amsterdam, a member of his legal team, said.

"The present proceedings are a miscarriage of justice," Mr Amsterdam said, and claimed the charges were designed to quash any chances Khodorkovsky had of winning parole, something he said his client would theoretically be eligible for from October of this year.

Russia faces crunch parliamentary elections later this year and a presidential ballot in 2008. The Kremlin would not want to see a politically active Khodorkovsky released, Mr Amsterdam added.

Though Khodorkovsky inspires scant sympathy among long-suffering ordinary Russians, the jailed oligarch has become a darling of Russia's liberal establishment and has even been touted as a possible presidential contender.

His lawyers suggested this latest legal onslaught was also a Kremlin attempt to appropriate Khodorkovsky's "hidden millions". When Forbes magazine published its first Russian rich list in 2004, Khodorkovsky was estimated to be worth $15.2bn.