Jailed Tycoon Claims Abuses by the Kremlin

Times Staff Writer

Lawyers for jailed oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky turned up the heat on Russian President Vladimir V. Putin's administration Tuesday, accusing the government of ransacking defense lawyers' offices, attempting to coerce confessions and conducting secret court hearings in a campaign to "silence" the former Yukos Oil Co. chief.

In a report that coincides with Putin's summit with European Union leaders later this week, lawyers for Khodorkovsky and two other Yukos defendants outlined an alleged "campaign of intimidation and political extortion" on the part of prosecutors and Russian security services intended to block the 40-year-old billionaire's increasing political activism.

Meanwhile, a leading opposition figure said Tuesday that Khodorkovsky, only hours before his Oct. 25 arrest, had launched the first in a series of up to 50 public meetings across Russia intended to promote the development of a civil society -- and support for political parties opposing the pro-Kremlin United Russia party.

Khodorkovsky had just finished a meeting with more than 2,000 residents of the central industrial town of Nizhny Novgorod, and was on his way to a second public meeting in the southern city of Irkutsk, when armed law enforcement commandos arrested him after his plane landed for fuel, said Boris Nadezhdin, a member of the Union of Right Forces faction in parliament.

"Khodorkovsky wanted to educate the elites.... It was a campaign to promote liberal ideas and values among people," Nadezhdin said in an interview. "Everywhere Khodorkovsky traveled, he [planned to] have a uniform message for his audiences: 'Do not vote for Communists or for Unified Russia, but cast your votes in support of the [liberal opposition] Union of Right Forces or Yabloko parties.... He was sincerely convinced that Russia's future hinges on a truly market economy, democracy and the rule of law."

Nadezhdin's account provides a strong suggestion of a political link in a prosecution that Russian officials have insisted is based on allegations of tax evasion, fraud and forgery in connection with Khodorkovsky's personal finances and operation of the oil company, poised to become Russia's largest.

Putin on Tuesday compared the Yukos case to U.S. prosecutions against Enron Corp. officials. "I assure you, nothing extraordinary is happening here.... The difference is that people with a fortune this size have never been criminally charged [in Russia], unlike in other countries," Putin said in a meeting with Italian journalists in Moscow.

The president said the point was that businesses must be held accountable for unpaid taxes. "Everyone should understand once and for all -- the law should be followed all the time, and not just when you're caught."

With the white paper detailing alleged legal violations in the Yukos case, Khodorkovsky's lawyers were clearly mounting a political attack of their own, aimed at marshaling pressure in Europe in advance of the EU summit with Russia, scheduled Thursday in Rome.

In a statement Tuesday, the EU said delegates intended to raise the Yukos case, calling for "the fair, nondiscriminatory and proportional application of the law by the Russian authorities." The statement said defendants "must be granted due process so that they have a fair chance of defending themselves" and warned that failure to respect legal principles could hold back Russia's integration into a common European economic space.

Robert Amsterdam, a Khodorkovsky lawyer, said the legal abuses in the Yukos case presented "a horrifying story of tremendous brutality, accompanied by an overwhelmingly powerful prosecutorial arm, directly under the control of the executive."

In their report, defense lawyers allege that former Yukos security department chief Alexei Pichugin was subjected to "torture" through the use of psychotropic drugs to coerce a confession. Authorities have denied that any drugs were used during the interrogations.

Numerous raids were conducted without search warrants or proper inventory of confiscated property, the report said, and a key defense lawyer's office was ransacked while he was attending a court hearing in the case. Despite the existence of attorney-client privilege in Russia, the document said, investigators confiscated the lawyer's notes on the case, hundreds of files, three safes and a personal computer.

The defendants are said to have been denied access to their lawyers, held without bail for essentially "economic" crimes and pressured to incriminate themselves. Their cases, the lawyers say, have been reviewed in illegally closed court hearings by judges who "lack independence."

"To date, Mr. Khodorkovsky, and those caught up in the campaign against him, have been denied due process in every sense of the word," the report concludes. "In the Yukos case, the Russian government is manipulating the criminal justice system to serve its own political ends, because Mr. Khodorkovsky has become a high-profile supporter of educational, cultural and other civil society institutions viewed as a threat to ... those in Russia who wish to maintain authoritarian control."

Russian prosecutors have declined to discuss the inquiry.

Nadezhdin, whose party this year received an estimated 10% of its $10-million budget from Khodorkovsky, said the real political war ahead was whether the Kremlin would secure a majority of seats in the Dec. 7 parliamentary elections. Khodorkovsky, he said, was preparing to tour about 50 Russian cities during the next two months to "talk to people about their own future" and encourage them to vote for "liberal" alternatives to the pro-Kremlin party, which currently holds the majority.

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