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US Lawyers for Russian Oil Firm Concerned About Arrest of Russia's Richest Man - 2003-10-27


American lawyers employed by the Yukos oil company voiced deep concern Monday about the arrest on Saturday of Yukos chairman Mikhail Khodorkovsky, Russia's richest man.

Yukos lawyers denounced the conduct of the Russian authorities in arresting Mr. Khodorkovsky, who has become increasingly vocal in challenging the policies of President Vladimir Putin. Robert Amsterdam, a Washington lawyer active in promoting legal reform in Russia, says Mr. Khodorkovsky was targeted because of his political views.

"Mr. Khodorkovsky sits in jail today because he has been politically targeted by the procuracy [the Ru ssian government's criminal prosecution establishment] and by those who the procuracy serves," he said.

The procuracy is Russia's criminal prosecution establishment. Mr. Amsterdam says Mr. Khodorkovsky is being silenced because he favors a pro-western Russia that adheres to western standards of business and political conduct. His arrest and continued detention, says the American lawyer, are outrageous acts that violate the Russian constitution.

"Mr. Khodorkovsky was arrested in Novosibirsk. He could have been brought before a judge in Novosibirsk to have his detention examined," he said. "That was not in the interests of the FSB [the KGB successor agency]. Rather they brought him to Moscow and took him to a particular court, the Basmanny court. The Basmanny court is known to Russian defense lawyers as the Karmany court, which in Russian stands for pocket. It is in the pocket of the procuracy."

Mr. Khodorkovsky was arrested at gunpoint on charges of fraud and tax evasion. The oil company baron, 40, is one of the most successful of the oligarchs who gained control of Russia's richest state enterprises during a controversial privatization a decade ago.

His arrest was defended Sunday by Russian President Vladimir Putin, who said he proceeds "from the assumption that the court had reason to do that." Mr. Putin added, "everyone should be equal before the law, irrespective of how many billions of dollars a person has."

Sanford Saunders, another of Mr. Khodorkovsky's attorneys, ridiculed the tax evasion charges, saying $1-million being sought was an inconsequential amount to such a rich man.

"This is about more than just the oil company," he said. "This is about the future of the country. And another element in the [Russian] constitution is the right to free speech in Russia. And there is no free speech, if you use the criminal code and the criminal procedures against people because you don't like what they're saying, and you disagree with their vision for the country."

Russia faces parliamentary elections in December and presidential elections are expected next March.