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October 25 marks ten years since the arrest of Mikhail Khodorkovsky. The owner of Yukos Oil company, Khodorkovsky was then one of Russia’s richest men, and the case has been a dark cloud in Russia for a decade.
In addition to funding civil society organizations and openly extending some support to Russia’s political opposition, Khodorkovsky also stood squarely in the way of the government’s plans to re-establish its control over Russia’s vast oil wealth. After his dramatic arrest by dozens of riot police in 2003, Khodorkovsky lost his freedom and, eventually, Yukos.
In 2005, a court convicted Khodorkovsky and his business associate, Platon Lebedev, on charges of fraud and tax evasion, handing them eight-year prison terms. The European Court of Human Rights ruled in 2013 that there was not enough evidence to prove charges were brought only for political reasons, but it also acknowledged that some officials “had their own reasons to push” for Khodorkovsky’s prosecution. The court also found, among other flaws in the case, that the authorities pressured Khodorkovsky’s lawyers.
In 2007, the state pressed new theft and embezzlement charges against Khodorkovsky and Lebedev, just as they approached eligibility for parole. They were convicted in 2010, in a trial that was a terrible blow to the rule of law in Russia, and sentenced to 14 years, to run simultaneously with their 2005 sentence.
Few within and beyond Russia expressed any doubt that the second set of charges was politically motivated. There were serious flaws in the charges, allegations that the court tolerated serious procedural errors, and evidence suggesting that government investigators engaged in intimidation, harassment, beating, and denial of necessary medical treatment to witnesses and defense attorneys.
Ten years ago, Khodorkovsky’s arrest and prosecution came just as the Kremlin started dismantling checks and balances on central executive power, including the independent broadcast media, liberal parliamentary opposition, and direct election of regional governors, and, eventually, NGOs. Now, after a lull during the Medvedev interregnum, a new crackdown seeks to lay waste to Russia’s civil society, with demonization of NGOs, new restrictions on public demonstrations, arrests of activists, re-criminalization of libel, and a smear campaign against government critics that eerily echoesthe Soviet past.
After several rounds of appeals, their prison terms for the 2010 charges were reduced by three years, making Khodorkovsky due for release in August, and Lebedev, in May 2014. But even if they were released immediately, the dark cloud that has hung over this case – and now over much of Russia – would not be lifted.