History is replete with tales of those whose enlightened view of the world became their ultimate undoing. It happened in the early 1400s to John Wycliffe who disregarded papal opposition and translated the Bible into the language of ordinary Englishmen. Wycliffe died of a stroke before he could be charged with heresy and burned at the stake, but that did not prevent a trial and conviction years later that resulted in his unearthed bones being cast into the River Swift. Unfortunately, two similar tales are playing out today in modern Russia, and we can only hope that the endings will be vastly different.
The first tale resurrected just last week when we learned that the Russian Ministry of Interior intends to put on trial the "bones" of Sergei Magnitsky, who suspiciously died in custody two years ago after he testified that Ministry officials embezzled $230 million dollars. This bizarre saga will break new ground as the first posthumous prosecution in Russian legal history. For those interested in rule of law, this is a particularly outrageous example of the "legal nihilism" that President Medvedev at first decried but has since accepted.
The second tale began in 2003 with the arrest of Mikhail Khodorkovsky and continues today as the most high profile example of Russian judicial corruption. Khodorkovsky took advantage of the chaotic "wild, wild east" period following the collapse of communism to build Yukos Oil Company into one of the most profitable businesses in Russia. Yet in the inverted world of Russian justice, adherence to such unorthodox standards was not his undoing.
The Kremlin began targeting Khodorkovsky when he applied Western standards to his business practices: bringing in outside Directors, conducting bona fide audits, and paying more taxes than any other private entity in Russia. More worrisome was that Khodorkovsky promoted genuine political opposition and sought to strengthen independent civil society groups. Recognizing the need for Russia to become truly modern, open, and democratic and believing that he could help usher in those changes, Khodorkovsky used his resources to attempt to reform the country he loved. For that lofty ambition, Putin's henchmen set out to destroy him.
Khodorkovsky has since been subjected to two show trials and spent nearly a decade in the Gulag with a sentence of 14 years still ahead. His prosecution has been denounced as politically motivated and a violation of human rights by the Parliamentary Council of Europe and the European Court of Human Rights, while Amnesty International has declared him a Prisoner of Conscience.
It is my greatest hope that the people of Russia see these two tales come to an honorable end. Compared to Sergei Magnitsky, who paid with his life for daring to expose corruption in Russia, Mikhail is a lucky man. As the refreshing spring winds of reform blow across Red Square, there is renewed hope that this courageous man may one day breathe the air of freedom outside prison walls. And yet, the bizarre announcement of the posthumous trial of Sergei Magnitsky, serves as a chilling reminder that the Russian winter is by no means over.
WATCH: Mikhail Khodorkovsky -- The Man Who Believed He Could Change Russia
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