Putin faces challenge from jailed oil magnate

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The Independent Online

Nine days after being arrested at gunpoint and jailed on fraud charges, Russia's richest man resigned as chief executive of the oil giant Yukos yesterday, to devote himself to building a democratic opposition.

In a direct challenge to President Vladimir Putin, Mikhail Khodorkovsky issued a dramatic statement from prison in Moscow. "I am leaving the company... As the leader of this company, I must do my utmost to lead our ... team out from under the attack which has been directed against me and my partners."

The oil tycoon, regarded as Russia's chief "oligarch", was snatched from his private plane by security service agents at a Siberian airport. His statement yesterday paves the way for him to mount a bid to become the Russian president.

Mr Khodorkovsky faces seven charges of fraud and tax evasion each carrying a minimum of 10 years in prison and large fines, if not confiscation of property. His holdings in the company, estimated at $11bn (£6.5bn), are currently frozen by the Russian authorities.

His arrest was widely seen as an attempt by Mr Putin and his former KGB allies in the Kremlin to curb the tycoon's growing political and financial influence, specifically his bankrolling of their political opponents in parliamentary elections next month. He may also have been arrested because of the suspicion that he harbours political ambitions.

Mr Khodorkovsky is a supporter of Russia's liberal opposition and has given millions to liberal political parties such as the Yabloko bloc, and to independent media. Last year he paid $100m to establish a pro-business "humanitarian university" in Moscow. His dabbling in politics violated an unwritten agreement that Russia's "oligarchs" would stay out of politics in return for avoiding close scrutiny of their financial affairs.

Yesterday he defended his record at Yukos, the world's fourth biggest energy company. He said he intended to develop his work with Open Russia, a foundation he created "to build an open and genuinely democratic society in Russia". Some saw his resignation as a victory for the Kremlin's hawks. But his statement also hinted at a possible political future. "Wherever I work, I will give all my strength to my country - Russia, in whose great future I firmly believe," he said.

Mr Khodorkovsky's international legal team meanwhile accused the Russian authorities of riding roughshod over the rule of law. A Canadian lawyer Robert Amsterdam, acting for the tycoon, said: "We are talking about a cancer, a cancer that is growing on the Russian body politic. That cancer is authoritarianism." Mr Amsterdam flew to Brussels yesterday to urge the European Union to put pressure on Russia.