Additional charges filed against jailed Russian

Former oil magnate laundered money, prosecutors allege

February 06, 2007|By Jeffrey Fleishman and Sergei L. Loiko | Jeffrey Fleishman and Sergei L. Loiko,LOS ANGELES TIMES

MOSCOW -- New money-laundering and embezzlement charges filed yesterday against Russian oil magnate Mikhail Khodorkovsky make it unlikely that the prominent political enemy of President Vladimir V. Putin will be released from prison before Russia's 2008 presidential election.

Khodorkovsky's conviction in 2005 for tax evasion and fraud, viewed by many analysts as retribution for his supporting political opposition figures, resulted in an eight-year prison sentence. Before the new accusations, the former billionaire chairman of Yukos Oil, who is being held in Siberia, could have been eligible for parole in October. If he is convicted of the new charges, up to 15 years could be added to his sentence.

"It is clear that those who want to keep Khodorkovsky locked up for as long as possible certainly don't want him to even have a miserable chance" of swaying the presidential election, said Lev Ponomaryov, a leader of the organization For Human Rights, who compared the recent charges to purges by Josef Stalin.

Ponomaryov said the Putin administration is "afraid that once out of prison, Khodorkovsky may quickly work to unite the liberal opposition and ruin the Kremlin's plans to dominate the election hands down."

Khodorkovsky had not been expected to leave prison and run for office. As a wealthy tycoon, he is not much admired by working Russians. But the prospect of his presence and money in campaigns for parliamentary elections this year and the presidential election in 2008 could have inspired activists and funded candidates opposing politicians backed by Putin, who is in his second term and ineligible for re-election.

The Russian prosecutor general's office charges that Khodorkovsky, once Russia's richest man, was a consummate schemer who skimmed profits and manipulated privatization programs to enrich himself.

Khodorkovsky created shell companies and bilked the government out of more than $1 billion in tax revenues, prosecutors say. The prosecutor's office made no public comment yesterday, but a statement on its Web site said that Khodorkovsky committed "crimes on a large scale."

The new charges allege that he and his partner Platon Lebedev laundered more than $20 billion in illegal oil revenues. Once a symbol of Russia's post-communist capitalism, Yukos is bankrupt, and its once-flashy chairman is often pictured peering through prison bars.

"Authorities want to get their hands on the remains of Khodorkovsky's wealth they believe is stashed away somewhere in the West," said Stanislav Belkovsky, president of the National Strategy Institute. "The Kremlin and Putin personally believe that these hidden funds are largely responsible for the growing anti-Putin sentiments in the world."

Mikhail Delyagin, chairman of the Institute for Globalization Studies, said, "Russia stands out to the world as a repressive regime in which Putin's rule and respect for human rights strongly appear as incompatible notions. The whole world is invited to witness that the real Putin has nothing to do with his televised image."

Jeffrey Fleishman and Sergei L. Loiko write for the Los Angeles Times.

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