Russia reopens 1998 murder probe; Putin critic Mikhail Khodorkovsky is a suspect

Former oil magnate and Kremlin critic Mikhail Khodorkovsky may have ordered the 1998 contract killing of a Siberian mayor, a spokesman for the Russian Investigative Committee said Tuesday in announcing that the murder case was being reopened.

The renewed probe into the death of Nefteyugansk Mayor Vladimir Petukhov coincides with an international court ruling obliging the Kremlin to pay $50 billion in compensation to stakeholders who were dispossessed by Russian government actions against Khodorkovsky's Yukos energy giant after the oligarch was sent to prison in 2003 for tax evasion.

Both the new accusation and the charges that sent Khodorkovsky to prison camps for more than a decade are seen by rights groups as trumped up to stifle the outspoken critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Khodorkovsky has been living in Switzerland since his release from detention in December 2013 and has relaunched his civil society group Open Russia through Moscow intermediaries to foster his homeland's repressed opposition political forces. Though living in exile, Khodorkovsky has become a prominent voice against Putin's support for separatist rebels ravaging eastern Ukraine and against the authoritarian drift of the Kremlin leader.

Putin's United Russia party dominates all political activities and has enacted laws demonizing foreign-funded civil society groups, compelling them to register as "foreign agents" when working in Russia. Outspoken political opponents of the Kremlin have at times met violent ends, as in the Feb. 27 contract killing of former Russian First Deputy Prime Minister Boris Nemtsov.

Vladimir Markin, a spokesman for the Investigative Committee, the Russian equivalent of the FBI, told state-controlled media on Tuesday that the agency has new information implicating Khodorkovsky in Petukhov's killing.

Petukhov was shot to death walking to work on June 26, 1998 — Khodorkovsky's 35th birthday — in the midst of a dispute with Yukos management.

Alexei Pichugin, a former head of security at Yukos, was found guilty of planning Petukhov's murder, Russia's RIA Novosti news agency reported.

"According to evidence at the disposal of the Investigative Committee, the man who ordered that murder and a number of other exceptionally grave crimes might have been Yukos chief Mikhail Khodorkovsky," Markin told the Tass news agency.

The self-exiled former oil tycoon's spokeswoman said Khodorkovsky had no comment on the latest allegations against him. His lawyer, Vadim Kluvgant, called the accusations "speculations and fantasies" and also declined to respond to them, Tass reported.

Khodorkovsky asked Markin in a message via Twitter whether the allegations were in response to his recent writings that are critical of Putin or connected with a court ruling a year ago at the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague, Netherlands.

The court ruled that Yukos shareholders were unjustly deprived of their property by the Russian government, and French and Belgian authorities recently began freezing Russian assets in their banks to compensate the former Yukos shareholders.

"The Investigative Committee is not interested in politics," Markin responded.

The Russian government plans to appeal the international court's compensation order, Putin aide Andrei Belousov told Russia Today television.

"We believe that all this is illegal, and we are taking a series of actions to protect our interests," Belousov said, calling the French and Belgian actions "highly politicized."

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