Khodorkovsky lawyer says he and others detained at Moscow airport

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The Independent Online

Lawyers for imprisoned Russian tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky and his business partner were briefly detained at a Moscow airport yesterday, a day before new charges were expected to be filed against their clients, one of the attorneys said.

Five lawyers for Khodorkovsky and Platon Lebedev were detained by police at Domodedovo airport in the evening as they were waiting to register for a flight to the Siberian city of Chita, where their clients are in custody, Yuri Shmidt told The Associated Press.

Speaking on his mobile phone as he headed for the flight, Shmidt said that he and the others were held for about an hour without explanation, and then were released. Police could not immediately be reached for comment.

Khodorkovsky, founder of the now bankrupt oil giant OAO Yukos, has been serving an eight-year sentence in a Siberian prison camp near the Chinese border after being convicted in 2004 on fraud and tax evasion charges following a politically charged trial. He and Lebedev were moved in December to a detention center in Chita, a regional seat, for questioning.

Before his arrest and the parallel tax probe that put most of Yukos in state hands, Khodorkovsky was estimated by Forbes magazine to be the richest man in Russia, with a fortune worth US$15 billion.

The trial and tax probe were widely seen as Kremlin-driven punishment for his challenges of President Vladimir Putin and his perceived political ambitions, as well as part of a drive to boost state control over the strategically important oil sector.

Russia's top prosecutor last month said new money laundering charges would be filed against Khodorkovsky and other former Yukos executives, raising the prospect of years more in prison. Shmidt said Saturday that prosecutors would file the new charges Monday, and had instructed Khodorkovsky's legal team to travel to Chita for the indictment.

Khodorkovsky could face up to 15 years for money laundering. He has been in detention since October 2003 and could be eligible for parole later this year. Kremlin critics suggested the new charges were aimed at ensuring he remains in prison and presents no political threat.

Prison terms on separate charges are not usually served consecutively in Russia; convicts are jailed for the longest sentence.

Prosecutors have not commented on the substance of the new charges. According to Shmidt, they allege Khodorkovsky was involved in laundering oil revenues defrauded from Yukos through his Open Russia foundation.

Shmidt said he did not know why the lawyers were detained, but that police had hinted of suspicions that they possessed illegal documents. Lawyers and others linked to Khodorkovsky and Yukos have faced harassment from the authorities.