Khodorkovsky criticizes prosecutors

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Jailed former oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, in a new trial on embezzlement and money-laundering charges, accused Russia today of singling him out for punishment and obstructing efforts to prove his innocence.

On the second day of the trial, the judge rejected a defence motion to seek testimony from an American former executive of Khodorkovsky's now-defunct oil company, Yukos — the latest in a series of rulings his lawyers say point to bias in the prosecution's favour.



Khodorkovsky, once Russia's richest man, is serving an eight-year prison sentence following a 2005 fraud and tax evasion conviction. The case was seen as part of a Kremlin push to punish him for challenging then-President Vladimir Putin and to strengthen the state's grip on energy resources. Yukos was later bankrupted by tax claims and auctioned off, much of it ending up in state companies' hands.



Now Khodorkovsky is charged with embezzling more than $25bn worth of oil from Yukos production subsidiaries and laundering most of the proceeds. He and business partner Platon Lebedev, also serving eight years on the same charges as Khodorkovsky, face up to 22 more years in prison if convicted on the new charges, which he and his lawyers say are part of a reprisal campaign driven by political and commercial calculations.



"Unlike normal cases, in which they first discover a crime and then look for the criminals, here they first selected a defendant and then tried to come up with a case," Khodorkovsky told the court. He spoke from a glass-and-metal courtroom cage where he and Lebedev are confined during hearings in the trial, which is expected to last several months.



Khodorkovsky smiled genially at supporters and journalists after he was led into the courtroom by burly officers. He was handcuffed at the wrist to one of them, and then was put in the cage. He opened the hearing with harsh words for prosecutors Dmitry Shokhin and Valery Lakhtin, both of whom also represented the state in the previous proceedings against him.



Khodorkovsky accused them of violating his rights as a defendant, claiming they have bent the law to suit their purposes and sought to keep out evidence that could help exonerate him. Shokhin, who was lead prosecutor in Khodorkovsky's first trial, denied Khodorkovsky's claims and accused him of deliberately misconstruing his remarks.



Putin's critics likened Khodorkovsky's first trial to the Soviet-era show trials in which guilty verdicts were predetermined in the Kremlin. The new trial is being watched for signs of change under Putin's successor, President Dmitry Medvedev, a former lawyer who has called for improvements in the corruption-tainted justice system.



But Judge Viktor Danilkin has backed prosecutors on most issues, rejecting every defence motion in preliminary hearings.



Today, he rejected a defence request to ask US authorities to question Bruce Misamore, an American who was Yukos' chief financial officer for several years. The defendants and their lawyers said testimony from Misamore would help prove that the activities the prosecution claims amounted to embezzlement and money laundering were actually standard, legal business practices.

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