Court denies bail for Russian magnate

Facing 7 criminal counts, Khodorkovsky is seen as possible flight risk

November 12, 2003|By KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

MOSCOW - Russia's wealthiest man was denied bail yesterday when a court ruled against him during a closed hearing in Moscow.

A new Russian law permits the granting of bail, but the court apparently feared that oil billionaire Mikhail Khodorkovsky might flee the country.

He faces seven criminal counts - including fraud, forgery and tax evasion - and the government had frozen his shares in the oil company he once headed as a hedge against possible fines and tax penalties. Many observers believe that the charges are politically motivated.

Khodorkovsky, 40, the former head of oil giant Yukos, didn't appear in court yesterday but participated through a video hookup. He faces a possible 10-year sentence and probably will remain in jail at least until Dec. 30.

His lead attorney, Anton Drel, said they might take their case to the European Court of Human Rights.

Another member of the legal team said he would push for a group of international jurists to be allowed to monitor the court case.

"We want to see a panel of ... international observers who will observe the court proceedings," attorney Robert Amsterdam said in Oslo, Norway.

He offered no details about the possible makeup of such a panel, how it would work or whether Russian authorities would permit it.

Khodorkovsky was arrested Oct. 25 when masked federal agents stormed his plane in a predawn raid in Siberia. Two other senior Yukos officers were arrested previously on similar charges.

The oil magnate has been increasingly active in the political sphere, especially in funding two opposition parties.

Parliamentary elections are scheduled for Dec. 7, and a presidential election is set for March.

Analysts speculate that President Vladimir V. Putin is using Khodorkovsky's arrest to assert greater state control over Russia's energy industry.

At the very least, Khodorkovsky seems to have crossed a boundary that Putin set down after his election in 2000: Putin said his government wouldn't go after the handful of super-rich Russian oligarchs if they promised to stay out of politics.

The oligarchs used shady deals and strong-arm tactics to make billion-dollar fortunes during the post-Soviet legal vacuum in the early and middle 1990s. Two of those who did venture into politics through their media empires - Boris Berezovsky and Vladimir Gusinsky - had many of their assets seized and are living abroad.

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