- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 17, 2009

MOSCOW (AP) - Former oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky must remain in jail and face a multibillion-dollar embezzlement trial, a Moscow judge ruled Tuesday, refusing a defense request to dismiss the charges.

Wrapping up preliminary hearings in the new case against Khodorkovsky, who has been behind bars for more than five years, District Court Judge Viktor Danilkin briskly dismissed a slew of defense motions and set a March 31 start date for the main trial.

Khodorkovsky’s lawyers said the judge’s decision had been expected, and said the new charges were fabricated as part of a reprisal campaign driven by political and commercial interests.

The prosecution’s claims “could only be dreamed up in some very elaborate fantasy,” Khodorkovsky’s lead lawyer, Vadim Klyuvgant, told reporters after the hearing.

Khodorkovsky, 45, was sentenced in 2005 to eight years in prison on fraud and tax evasion charges. His Yukos oil company, once Russia’s largest, was broken up and its main assets sold to a state oil giant in what was widely seen as an effort to strengthen the Kremlin grip on Russia’s energy riches.

Authorities filed new charges last month against Khodorkovsky, once Russia’s richest man, claiming he and his partners embezzled more than US$25 billion in the course of building up his Yukos oil empire. His supporters and Kremlin critics see the new case as a politically driven effort to keep Khodorkovsky behind bars long past the next presidential election in 2012.

It is also seen as a continued push to punish Khodorkovsky for angering former President Vladimir Putin, now prime minister, by questioning Kremlin policy and flouting an unwritten pact meant to keep Russia’s tycoons out of politics.

During preliminary hearings that began two weeks ago, lawyers for Khodorkovsky and his business partner Platon Lebedev asked the judge to dismiss the charges against them, claiming there was no evidence of a crime.

Danilkin rejected that motion and several others Tuesday, and said the trial would be open to the public.

Natalya Terekhova, another defense lawyer, said that the defendants had listened to the judge “in the hope of hearing something unexpected, but nothing unexpected happened.”

In a closed-circuit TV broadcast from the inside the courtroom, Khodorkovsky _ in blue jeans and a black-and-grey pullover _ could be seen standing calmly next to Lebedev in an iron-and-glass cage, at times referring to a sheaf of papers as the judge took about 45 minutes to speed-read his statement.

Khodorkovsky has served most of his sentence, counted from the time of his 2003 arrest, at a Siberian prison colony. He faces up to 22 more years in prison if convicted on all new charges.

For Kremlin critics who accuse Putin of using Russia’s courts as a political tool, the new trial is a test of his successor, President Dmitry Medvedev, a former lawyer who has repeatedly stressed the importance of the rule of law and called for improvements in Russia’s justice system.

Lebedev’s defense lawyer, Yelena Liptser, said the case was already riddled with violations that would not allow a fair verdict.

Among other things, she said authorities had manipulated evidence and deprived lawyers of potential evidence, including by seizing documents in office searches.

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