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Amb. Marc Ginsberg

Amb. Marc Ginsberg

Posted: February 25, 2009 05:14 PM

Double Jeopardy: Putin's Vengeful Miscarriage of Justice

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Kremlin inspired vengeance knows no limits when it comes to the miscarriage of justice committed by Russian authorities against political prisoners Mikhail Khodorkovsky and his fellow imprisoned business partner, Platon Lebedev. Both men now face the prospect of a second Soviet era kangaroo-style proceeding designed to keep them in the Siberian gulag indefinitely despite having become eligible for parole under Russian law.

A hearing to determine the date of the new trial is scheduled for March 3rd.

When then President Vladimir Putin embarked in 2003 upon his audacious plot to nationalize Russia's private energy companies, Khodorkovsky's Yukos Oil Company became target #1.

Why?

At the time of his arrest in October, 2003, Khodorkovsky was the most successful, wealthiest and pro-U.S. of the so-called Russian "oligarchs," having transformed Yukos Oil into the most efficient, profitable and transparent energy company in Russia that was beyond the grasp of Putin's Kremlin cronies.

Khodorkovsky was determined to change the way Russia did business internally and with the west in order to attract more foreign investment to his country. He developed strong strategic business and philanthropic ties to major U.S. companies and organizations, including the Carlyle Group, Schlumberger, the Carnegie Endowment, the Library of Congress and Oxford University.

Khodorkovsky had also created his own Russian philanthropic foundation -- Open Russia -- which was supporting a wide variety of civil society programs in Russia. Yukos Oil was fast becoming the model corporate citizen leading Russia into a new era of partnership with the U.S. And Khodorkovsky was determined to cement democratic values, social responsibility, and transparent corporate governance into the boardrooms of Russia's corruption-prone business elites.

But Putin considered Khodorkovsky a threat to his own power and viewed the reformer as his principal threat in his quest to consolidate power Soviet-style. Putin made it clear to subordinates that he was determined to eliminate Khodorkovsky as a rival and force an illegal confiscation of Yukos Oil.

So what did Putin do? He ordered his KGB cronies to drum up fictitious charges and find the right judges to bring the full weight of Russian misjustice down on Khodorkovsky and Yukos Oil.

In their first Kremlin-instigated trial, allegedly for tax evasion and other financial crimes, the harsh verdicts handed down against Khodorkovsky and Lebedev were widely disparaged by international human rights organizations as politically-motivated convictions based on political instructions from the Kremlin. The court proceedings were so transparently outrageous that they were universally condemned as a rehash of Stalinist-style injustice in the name of dogged persecution -- not impartial prosection. Not one shred of impartial evidence was introduced by the prosecution to prove that either Khodorkovsky or Lebedev committed the alleged corporate misdeeds which were never impartially proven. Their first trial was replete with violations of due process and subject to intense international criticism from impartial human rights organizations such as Amnesty International and Freedom House.

Since their forced imprisonment, Khodorkovsky and Lebedev have been denied adequate medical attention, have been the subject of physical assault by guards, and after having served over half their sentences, have been denied parole despite having fulfilled the requirements of parole under Russian law.

But keeping Khodorkovsky and Lebedev in Siberia under lock and key until the expiration of their current sentence in 2011 is apparently not good enough to satisfy Putin's personal vendetta.

A few weeks ago, the Russian Prosecutor General's Office finalized new charges against Khodorkovsky and Lebedev which are intended to extend their imprisonment indefinitely.

The charges are so ludicrous on their face that the Kremlin was forced to remove the original prosecutors who drew up the charges to work on yet another contrived set of charges -- neither of which can pass any smell test of rudimentary justice.

To appease Putin's orders, Russian authorities are utilizing a range of extra-judicial and unethical tactics, including blackmail, and the intimidation of others to manipulate "evidence" to convict the two yet again. I guess if Putin repeats the big lie enough times, it must be true under Russian law!

During his presidential campaign, President Obama stated that the degree and manner which Russia respects human rights and the rule of law will necessarily impact the future of U.S. - Russian relations.

Should Russian authorities proceed to file new charges against Messrs. Khodorkovsky and Lebedev, there is no doubt in my mind that the United States should send a strong signal to Moscow that the reset button cannot be pushed -- as Vice President Biden recently proposed -- until the Kremlin desists from a second trial and frees Khodorkovsky and Lebedev.

The trumped-up case against Khodorkovsky and Lebedev is all too illustrative of the decay of democracy, due process, the rule of law and human rights that has occurred in Putin's Russia. Soviet-style autocratic injustice is once again on parade, and the case against Khodorkovsky and Lebedev is just the tip of the iceberg. So many of Putin's adversaries have been silenced, tortured or eliminated in recent years, that human rights organizations can barely keep track of the endless human rights violations that are occurring daily throughout Russia.

The manipulated trials against Khodorkovsky and Lebedev starkly reveal the extent to which Putin will stoop to undermine Russia's democratic institutions to serve his own parochial quest for power and prevent anyone or anything from daring to challenge his autocratic rule.

Footnote Diclosure: Marc Ginsberg is a senior counselor for a company that represents Messrs. Khodorkovsky and Lebedev.