Oil oligarch accused over contract killings

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The Independent Online

Russia's turbulent relationship with its super-rich oligarchy soured dramatically yesterday when an international arrest warrant for murder was issued against Leonid Nevzlin, the country's 18th most wealthy man and a main shareholder in the oil giant Yukos.

Russia's turbulent relationship with its super-rich oligarchy soured dramatically yesterday when an international arrest warrant for murder was issued against Leonid Nevzlin, the country's 18th most wealthy man and a main shareholder in the oil giant Yukos.

The business elite is used to allegations of white-collar crime but they have not, until now, been accused of murder. Moscow's Basmanny court states in the warrant that Mr Nevzlin, 44, a long-time associate of the tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky who is in prison awaiting trial, was complicit in the murder of two people and in the attempted murder of three. The court alleged that Mr Nevzlin, a former senior executive at Yukos, ordered contract killings.

The move sent shock waves through the Russian financial markets. Shares in Yukos tumbled 22 per cent on Moscow's Micex exchange to their lowest level in two-and-a-half years, forcing a suspension of trading.

Mr Nevzlin, who is said to be worth $2bn by Forbes magazine, emigrated to Israel last year. He denied the allegations. Already wanted in Russia on tax evasion and embezzlement charges, he and his lawyer called the allegations groundless and laughable and vowed to fight them. An extradition battle is now likely to start.

President Vladimir Putin has alluded to Yukos-related accusations of murder in the past, citing them as a reason why he could not get involved in the case against Mr Khodorkovsky, who used to run Yukos and still owns a large stake. Accused of tax fraud and embezzlement, Mr Khodorkovsky protests his innocence. He claims the case against him is politically motivated and a crude attempt to punish him for his anti-Kremlin forays into politics.

The charges against him pale in comparison, however, with those levelled against Mr Nevzlin. He is accused of masterminding murders with a former head of security at Yukos, Alexei Pichugin. Mr Pichugin, who protests his innocence, has been in jail since June of last year and is due to stand trial this year.

The Basmanny court alleged yesterday that he was taking orders from Mr Nevzlin. "Enough evidence ... has been gathered about how L Nevzlin, a director of Yukos and vice-chairman of Yukos-Moskva, entered into a criminal plot with A Pichugin ... to murder specific people who were a danger to Nevzlin and Pichugin themselves," it said.

The duo allegedly organised botched attempts in the late 1990s to kill Olga Kostina, a former senior adviser to Mr Khodorkovsky, an oil tycoon called Yevgeny Rybin, and Sergei Kolesov, another former employee of Mr Khodorkovsky's.

More seriously, they are accused of the 2002 killing of a couple called Olga and Sergei Gorin, who apparently knew about the failed murder attempts and had to be silenced. Their bodies have not been found.

While no evidence has yet been seen in relation to this particular case, Moscow analysts said it was not uncommon for scores to be settled brutally in the 1990s, when the country's entrepreneurs were scrambling for power and riches. "It was a cut-and-thrust world. There were bomb blasts, drive-by-shootings and dead bodies used to turn up all over the place," one said.

Mr Nevzlin, who is married with two children, is closely connected to Mr Khodorkovsky. As a computer expert he joined his company in 1987 and then worked in a succession of Khodorkovsky firms until 2001, acting as the oligarch's right-hand man, presiding over Russia's Jewish Congress and helping to organise and fund the successful re-election campaign of Boris Yeltsin in 1996.

Like Mr Khodorkovsky, he had a penchant for dabbling in politics. In his most recent substantial interview, in April of this year with the daily newspaper Izvestia, he was highly critical of the Kremlin.

He said: "The present political power is the FSB or the KGB. This is completely incompatible with my system of values. By definition this power is mendacious and does not act in the people's interests."

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