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Russian Oligarch Back On Trial; What's The Crime?

Opposition activists in Saint Petersburg held a mock funeral for Russian justice when oil magnate Mikhail Khodorkovsky was sentenced in 2005.
Sergei Kulikov/
AFP/Getty Images
Opposition activists in Saint Petersburg held a mock funeral for Russian justice when oil magnate Mikhail Khodorkovsky was sentenced in 2005.

Mikhail Khodorkovsky used to be the richest man in Russia. But since 2003, he's been languishing in a Siberian prison. Some say his true crime was challenging the iron grip of then-President Vladimir Putin.

As owner of Yukos Oil Company, Khodorkovsky controlled 2 percent of the world's oil. But in 2003, after Putin came to power, Khodorkovsky was hauled off his private plane and arrested. He was convicted of fraud and tax evasion and is now back on trial, this time charged with money laundering and embezzlement. If convicted, he could face 22 more years in prison.

Many people outside Russia, including diplomats at the U.S. State Department, consider him a political prisoner. Foreign Policy magazine's Susan Glasser explains there's always been a high level of animosity between Putin and Khodorkovsky.


When Putin was elected in 2000, she tells NPR's Guy Raz, "he was determined to reassert the control and the supremacy of the Kremlin over Russian political life." That meant getting rid of oligarchs like Khodorkovsky -- men who made their money after the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1990s by privatizing state assets.

Some people believe Khodorkovsky has been singled out for unusually harsh treatment from the beginning, Glasser says.

In prison, Khodorkovsky has been treated like anything but royalty, she says. He's been put in solitary confinement for doing seemingly trivial things, like drinking tea in an unauthorized area or sunbathing. "These are not American prisons by any standards."

Glasser says there are many theories as to why Khodorkovsky is really being hauled back into court. One has to do with the ongoing legal fights Khodorkovsky is involved with outside of Russia over the assets of his oil company. Another is that he's offended the Kremlin through political statements that call into question Russia's political establishment.

"Perhaps it just means that they don't want to ever have to release Khodorkovsky. Who knows? It is not a transparent process,” she says.


From his jail cell, Khodorkovsky has written a steady stream of criticisms about the regime –-- many of which have been smuggled to Russian newspapers and international media. Khodorkovsky was even awarded a literary prize this year, which his daughter accepted on his behalf.

Nonetheless, inside Russia, Glasser says, Khodorkovsky's voice is largely ignored. Whether Khodorkovsky is a gangster like Al Capone, or a hero like Solzhenitsyn, Glasser says he is clearly playing the role of a political dissident today.

"[Khodorkovsky is] making a very articulate, coherent and poignant critique of the political system in Russia that absolutely drives the Kremlin crazy," Glasser says.

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