Russia jailed Khodorkovsky to silence him, say lawyers

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The Independent Online

Lawyers for the jailed oligarch, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, accused Russian authorities yesterday of trying to keep the former head of the country's biggest oil company locked up beyond next year's presidential election, four years after he was seized by masked gunmen on a Siberian airfield.

"The four-year anniversary of my client's imprisonment is a day for sober reflection on the deterioration of human rights and the rule of law in Russia," said his lawyer, Robert Amsterdam. "As evidenced by the recent refusal by the Swiss federal court to transfer bank documents to Russia related to my client, Mr Khodorkovsky is a victim of political persecution. The new, politically driven charges are conveniently timed to keep him in prison for the Russian presidential elections in 2008 and beyond."

It is widely held that the former Yukos CEO was jailed as an example to others after President Vladimir Putin declared war on the oligarchs, the hugely wealthy tycoons who were dabbling in opposition politics after making a fortune from the sale of state assets in the early 1990s following the demise of the Soviet Union. Many such tycoons, including Boris Berezovsky who lives in London, are now exiled.

Mr Khodorkovsky's supporters said the trial was held to silence a potential rival of Mr Putin, who is bound to stand down as president in the elections next March. Candidates who do not have Kremlin support to run as a presidential candidate fear they will be unable to overcome the administrative obstacles to register.

Under Russian law, having served half of an eight-year term for fraud and tax evasion in jail in Chita, Siberia, Mr Khodorkovsky should soon qualify for parole. But Mr Amsterdam said: "Spurious new charges announced by the Kremlin negate this eligibility."

The new charges were laid last February, and accuse Mr Khodorkovsky – who was once Russia's wealthiest man – of £15bn worth of money-laundering, a number which, according to Mr Amsterdam, "does not add up". No date has been set for a trial on the additional charges.

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