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Former Russian Oil Tycoon Prepares for New Trial

A new trial for former Russian oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky gets underway later this month, as he faces new charges by the government. The man who was once worth an estimated $15 billion, is back in Moscow from Siberia where he has been serving an eight-year prison sentence after being convicted on fraud and tax evasion charges in 2005 when Vladimir Putin was Russia's president.

Khodorkovsky and his supporters called that case politically motivated, meted out as punishment by a Kremlin angered by his political and business ambitions.

The new charges against Mikhail Khodorkovsky allege that he and his partners embezzled $25 billion from the oil firm he headed, Yukos, and related companies. If found guilty, the former oil tycoon could be sentenced to 22 years in jail, in addition to his current eight year sentence.

Khodorkovsky's lawyer, Vadimr Klyuvgant says his client rejects the latest new charges.

"As for the new accusation, he reacted to it over two years ago. He called it ludicrous and absurd," Klyuvgant said. "And this view will never change because this view is the only correct one."

Khodorkovsky was known for lending financial support to opposition groups critical of then-President Vladimir Putin. He was arrested at gunpoint on a Siberian airport runway in 2003. Two years later he was sentenced to eight years in prison for tax evasion and fraud connected to his Yukos oil empire, once Russia's biggest oil producer.

His parents, Marina and Boris Khodorkovsky, say the trials have turned their son into a folk hero.

"As funny as it may seem, they made a politician out of him. Before he was a lot less interested in politics, he was more interested in business and manufacturing activities, but for all this time he's been in prison his circumstances and public opinion have made him into a political figure," his mother stated.

One difference between the old trial and the new one: Russia has a new president. Political analysts say Dmitri Medvedev - who is Vladimir Putin's protégé and successor - is viewed as more moderate. And Russia's liberals are asking him to pardon Khodorkovsky.

Evgeni Volk heads the Moscow office of the Heritage Foundation. He says the outcome of the trial will show which direction the country is moving.

"Depending on what sentence he gets, whether it is harsh or mild, we can see what forces are taking over in the Kremlin - whether these are forces that are thirsty for blood and want a tougher regime for the country or whether they are forces that are interested in a wider cooperation with public forces in the country and are looking for a certain consensus in the times of economic crisis," Volk said.

After Khodorkovsky was sentenced, his company, Yukos, was broken up and its main assets were sold to a state-controlled company. Volk and others say this was widely seen as an effort to strengthen the Kremlin's grip on the strategic energy sector, while also punishing Khodorkovsky for his political ambitions.

The trial is expected to last several months.