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Putin Set for Russia-EU Summit in Italy - 2003-11-04

Russian president Vladimir Putin spends two days in Rome starting Tuesday during which he will meet with the Pope and attend an EU-Russia summit. European officials say they will press the Russian leader for fairness in the case against Russia's richest man, who was arrested last week.

President Putin will focus on Russia's relations with Italy on Wednesday, but on Thursday he will attend a summit on relations between Russia and the European Union. It will be the last such meeting before next May, when the EU expands to take in several former Soviet satellite states, including Poland and Hungary.

In a statement issued Tuesday, the European Commission said discussions will center on economic and security issues, including Russia's prospects for joining the World Trade Organization and the possibility of visa-free travel between Russia and the European Union.

But the commission says it will also raise several Russian domestic issues, including the conflict in Chechnya and the case of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, former head of the huge oil company Yukos, who was arrested October 25 on charges of fraud and tax evasion.

On the issue of Chechnya, the statement says that the EU will focus on the political prospects for a lasting peace in the region, and the need for Russia to facilitate humanitarian aid to the region.

With regard to the Yukos case, the commission says it will remind Mr. Putin of the need for what it calls the fair and non-discriminatory application of the law by the Russian authorities. The statement says defendants must be given a fair chance to defend themselves.

Canadian lawyer Robert Amsterdam, who represents Mr. Khodorkovsky, said in Rome Tuesday it will be difficult for his client to get a fair trial. "There is no presumption of innocence in Russia today. In fact there's a presumption of guilt. At the lower courts when people are found innocent it's almost routinely overturned on appeal. It's an incredibly dangerous and difficult situation in Russia," he said.

Mr. Amsterdam argued that the oil tycoon's arrest was politically motivated. Critics say Mr. Khodorkovsky was chosen as a target by President Putin's allies in the Kremlin to curb his growing financial and political power, especially his support for opposition candidates in upcoming parliamentary elections.

Speaking ahead of his Italian visit, Mr. Putin said that the Russian government was merely trying to enforce the law when it arrested Mr. Khodorkovsky, and was not interfering in business affairs. He also tried to calm fears in Europe that this could be the first step toward reversing privatization in Russia.

On Wednesday, the Russian president will hold a meeting with Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, and later will meet with Pope John Paul II. The pontiff's hoped-for visit to Moscow and relations between Russian Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches are expected to dominate the Vatican meeting.