- The Washington Times - Monday, April 20, 2009

MOSCOW (AP) - Imprisoned former oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky refused Monday to enter a plea in his new trial, saying the embezzlement and money-laundering charges against him are so vague he can’t even respond to them.

From the glass and steel defendants’ cage in a Moscow courtroom, Khodorkovsky told an assistant to show a series of slides with flow charts and diagrams to illustrate his claim that the charges make no sense.

Khodorkovsky, once Russia’s richest man, has been imprisoned since his arrest in 2003. In 2005, he was sentenced to eight years’ in prison on fraud and tax evasion charges that were widely seen as part of a Kremlin-driven campaign to punish him for challenging then-President Vladimir Putin and to increase state control over oil revenues.

He and imprisoned business partner Platon Lebedev are in the fourth week of their trial on charges of embezzling more than $25 billion worth of oil from subsidiaries of his Yukos oil company and laundering most of the proceeds. They face up to 22 years in prison if convicted.

The defense and prosecution disagree on whether the indictment should contain specific information on when, where and how the alleged crimes occurred. The prosecution said Monday that such information constitutes evidence that will be presented in the trial.

“Your honor, to date I have not been given the opportunity to understand what I am charged with,” Khodorkovsky said when asked by Judge Viktor Danilkin whether he considered himself guilty or innocent.

“They don’t understand, and that’s the funniest thing,” he said later, referring to the prosecution. The slides shown by his assistant were intended to show discrepancies in prosecutors’ definitions and wording.

Prosecutor Dmitry Shokhin said “No explanation is needed. It is completely obvious.”

The judge, after rejecting 25 defense motions, granted Khodorkovsky’s request that the plea be dealt with Tuesday.

It was not immediately clear what would happen if Khodorkovsky continued to refuse to enter a plea.

Khodorkovsky’s supporters claim the second trial is just a new phase of a reprisal campaign driven by political calculations, commercial interests and personal motives. It is being watched for signs of more judicial independence under Putin’s successor, President Dmitry Medvedev, a former lawyer who has stressed the importance of the rule of law.

The defendants and their lawyers describe the new charges as nonsense, saying they amount to an accusation that Khodorkovsky stole all the oil produced by Yukos from 1998 through 2003.

Khodorkovsky, reading from a sheaf of paper, said the prosecutors failed to adequately explain their claim that the oil was embezzled.

“Where does it say, ‘Here is the oil, and here there is no oil?’” Khodorkovsky asked the prosecutors.

Defense lawyers also argue that Khodorkovsky is being tried a second time for the same actions. They say the tax evasion charges in his initial trial were based on the same oil pricing and trade practices that the state is now using as the foundation for the embezzlement and money-laundering charges.

The state’s claims are based largely on the difference between the relatively low prices Yukos paid production subsidiaries for what came out the wells and the higher prices Yukos and related companies received for the oil sold abroad. Khodorkovsky’s legal team says such pricing mechanisms are common practice, but at the time shareholders in the production companies claimed bitterly that they were being robbed of their rightful profits.

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