I have been getting a number of calls and emails about Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's impromptu attack against Mikhail Khodorkovsky during the televised call-in show this week, and there was one thing remarkably different from back when I would receive such calls just a few years ago: not a single person, not even the more moderate pro-government types, could be bothered to take him seriously. Here we have the Prime Minister of a major power, an important country, speaking out in blatant and publicly acknowledged falsehoods to attack a Russian citizen, while the world sits back quietly in amusement watching him spin the Big Lie.
For those who missed all the drama, this was the second time in two weeks that Putin fell off the script, and lashed out emotionally towards Khodorkovsky (whom I represent as international counsel). Putin behaved in a way totally inappropriate for any head of government - much less one who is so obviously personally motivated in the prosecution of a legal case. The TV comments had all the appearance of improvisation, and it seems unlikely that Vladislav Surkov, Dmitry Peskov, or anybody else had the opportunity to smooth out the edges of the statement. Asked when Khodorkovsky would be released, Putin jumped: "Unfortunately, no one recalls that one of the Yukos security chiefs is in jail too. Do you think he acted on his initiative and at his own risk? He had no actual interest. He was not the company's main shareholder. It's obvious that he acted in the interests and under the directives of his bosses. How he acted is a separate matter. At least five murders have been proven."
Leaving aside for just a moment the fact that Khodorkovsky is not a murderer, and has never been charged of involvement in any such violence, the logic and timing of this argument is ridiculous.
Blood libel is Putin's Big Lie, and it is the ultimate mendacious recourse that the Kremlin falls back upon in times of desperation. Why now, one might reasonably ask, would Putin find the opportunity to share such important new insights into the case of a political prisoner? A person who has already suffered and been held illegally for six years now in labor camps in Siberia and the isolators of Moscow?
One could consider this the first official reaction to the international arbitration court decision that Yukos shareholders (separate from Khodorkovsky) can sue the Russian government as a signatory of the Energy Charter Treaty (ECT) for damages of up to $100 billion for their unlawful expropriation of Yukos. Let's recall that we saw similar behavior back when a Dutch court ruling back in March 2008 ordered that the government pay $850 million in compensation. It is a clear warning and a threat, befitting of a thug.
As an avalanche of legal decisions from foreign, actual rule-of-law courts destroys the government's credibility on the Khodorkovsky show trial, more and more scrutiny is being focused upon the crime within the crime: what happened to the country's largest, most transparent, and most successful oil company, and who pocketed billions from this illegal expropriation? This inconvenient fact of vast personal enrichment and state corruption in the theft of Yukos makes any accusation against Khodorkovsky suspicious from the outset. They may as well have accused him of starting the Reichstag fire.
Vadim Klyuvgant, Khodorkovsky's trial lawyer, has pointed out that there are questions that Putin appears to be avoiding: "This is the second time in the last five days that the prime minister has offered an extended reflection [on the subject]. The relation between the content of the question and the content of the reply is interesting. Putin was asked, 'When will you release Khodorkovsky?' The premier no longer makes any corrections to the form in which the question is posed. He knows very well that he is the one who must release Khodorkovsky. Let me stress that none of the accusations that were voiced today have ever been brought against the person of whom Putin was speaking."
Today in the courtroom Khodorkovsky himself reacted to the slander: "Vladimir Putin has just publicly declared that he knows for a fact that the funds stolen by Yukos are not in the hands of those who suffered during the said case but have been transferred to the nation. In the words of our premier, this money has been returned to the people on his orders. Since the prosecution have not found any other source of funds for myself and Yukos than from the sale of oil produced by the company the prosecution, evidently, Vladimir Putin knows certain circumstances, concealed from the court, that it would be of interest to know."
Khodorkovsky also added that they plan to petition for Putin to be summoned to give evidence at the Khamovnichesky district court.
First the comparison with Al Capone, and then murder accusations. Yet if the Kremlin had any real crime to prosecute against Khodorkovsky they wouldn't have had to mount two incompetently prosecuted show trials. Sergei Magnitsky was just murdered at these people's hands, using the same methods of medical blackmail suffered by a Yukos lawyer to force false testimony. Also this week, two constitutional court judges were just forced to resign for showing independence. Legal nihilism is at its all-time high, yet the government pretends to believe that all systems are running with regularity.
The panic we are witnessing shows that the criminals of the state doubt their own legitimacy, and deeply fear the legal ramifications of what happens next when this injustice comes to a close. And they should be afraid.
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