Khodorkovsky faces 10 years in prison for $1bn 'fraud'

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The Independent Online

The most important Russian court case since the collapse of communism is expected to reach its climax today when a Moscow court will decide whether Mikhail Khodorkovsky is guilty of fraud and embezzlement amounting to $1bn (£525m).

The most important Russian court case since the collapse of communism is expected to reach its climax today when a Moscow court will decide whether Mikhail Khodorkovsky is guilty of fraud and embezzlement amounting to $1bn (£525m).

His supporters expect him to be found guilty in what they claim is a show trial reminiscent of those orchestrated by Josef Stalin in the 1930s. They claim he is being punished for having dared question President Vladimir Putin, for having funded opposition parties and for generally getting too big for hisboots when he was the chief executive of Yukos, formerly Russia's biggest oil exporter.

The Kremlin, which has seen its democratic credentials and international investment reputation take a battering on the back of the case, sees things differently. It claims that Mr Khodorkovsky, who was once Russia's richest man, has avoided paying taxes and bought up the assets that made him wealthy for a fraction of their worth in a series of insider auctions.

The state prosecutor has asked that he be sentenced to 10 years for being part of a "criminal enterprise" that systematically defrauded the government. In reality things are not so clear-cut.

Mr Khodorkovsky, 41, did not accumulate the $15.2bn he was estimated to be worth last year by methods that most countries would consider "clean". The catch is, though, that neither did anyone else in Russia.

Like the other oligarchs, Mr Khodorkovsky took his share of the pie in a deal sanctioned by the then government of Boris Yeltsin.

It was a trade-off. The oligarchs helped Mr Yeltsin by loaning his ailing government money in return for snapping up businesses at bargain basement prices.

Where Mr Khodorkovsky differs from most of the other oligarchs, though, is that he then did what Mr Putin told the businessmen they should never do: interfere in politics.

He has already paid a price for that. Yukos has been decimated. His wealth has shrunk from more than $15bn to $2bn and he has spent 18 months in a prison cell. The question that will be answered today is: does Mr Putin think that was enough?

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