Shareholders of defunct Russian oil giant Yukos, which was dismantled and absorbed by a state-owned rival in contentious legal actions, are taking a new tack in their multibillion-dollar fight with the Russian government.
The former owners have alleged that lawyers at a powerful U.S. law firm helped Russia's Rosneft manipulate an Armenian court ruling in a parallel case that they say bears on a $50 billion judgment handed down in 2014.
The action, now unfolding in U.S. federal court, is the latest front in a convoluted battle that erupted early in Vladimir Putin's presidency and helped entrench the state's dominance in Russia's economy.
The law firm, Baker Botts, has denied wrongdoing, calling the allegations false.
Once Russia’s largest oil company, Yukos was systematically pared in the early 2000s through a series of bankruptcy proceedings that legal experts have said were rife with inconsistencies.
Assets, including huge Siberian oil fields, were acquired mainly by Rosneft, the government-owned company run by Igor Sechin, a former intelligence officer and close ally of Putin.
Yukos was built up by Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who was later prosecuted for financial crimes after purportedly crossing Putin in the early 2000s. After a decade in prison, Khodorkovsky fled Russia and he now funds opposition political groups from abroad.
In July 2014, an arbitration court in The Hague ordered Russia to pay $50 billion to compensate Yukos shareholders, one of the largest such awards in history.
Moscow, however, persuaded a Dutch district court nearly two years later to set aside that judgment.
The former stakeholders — banded together in a Brussels-based organization called GML — have asked a Dutch appeals court to overturn the lower court's ruling as they try to seize assets in multiple countries.
Last week, lawyers for GML alleged in a motion filed with the U.S. District Court in Washington that Rosneft tampered with Armenian court rulings that might have affected the Dutch decision.
"The Petitioners believe the evidence sought in this application will show efforts by the Russian Federation to manipulate Armenian courts, so as to influence proceedings before the Dutch courts," the motion states.
According to court filings, Rosneft filed suit in Armenia in the late 2000s seeking possession of one of Yukos's far-flung subsidiaries, Yukos CIS, which was located there. In 2011, Rosneft won possession of the subsidiary.
'Ordered' to issue judgment
About a year later, one of the key Armenian judges involved in the rulings gave sworn written testimony in a related Yukos case in a U.S. federal court in California. Surik Ghazaryan alleged that his superiors had ordered him to issue a judgment favorable to Rosneft, and even provided a flash drive with what he claimed was a pre-written copy of the judgment.
Ghazaryan said he fled Armenia fearing reprisal for his refusal to comply with other related instructions from his superiors.
"Every Armenian judge in charge of proceedings having to do with 'Yukos' has received a clear and unambiguous signal: either you follow directions from above and hand down judgments in favor of 'Rosneft' and against 'Yukos,' or you face serious consequences," he said in his written testimony.
There was no way to independently corroborate Ghazaryan's claims; his lawyer did not respond to an e-mail and phone message seeking comment.
'Every court, judge is fair game'
As Rosneft took control of Yukos's assets, shareholders sought compensation for Yukos's dismantling. Khodorkovsky is not party to the legal fight, though his former partners are.
In the filing in U.S. district court, the Yukos shareholders assert that two lawyers from Baker Botts, working out of the firm's Moscow office, were involved in drafting the suspect Armenian court judgments.
The shareholders submitted copies of purported Baker Botts e-mails as part of the filings. They also asked the Washington court to order that the lawyers be questioned under oath, with an eye to introducing the statements once the Dutch appeals court takes up the question of the $50 billion judgment as early as December.
Baker Botts, the shareholders said, may have "possession, custody or control [of] evidence that relates to efforts by the Russian Federation, both directly and through its agents, to interfere with and manipulate foreign judicial proceedings for the benefit of the Russian Federation."
As of June 29, Baker Botts, whose global headquarters are in Houston, Texas, had not responded to the U.S. court filings.
"The events that took place in Armenia reveal just how far Russia goes to undermine the rule of law: every court or judge is fair game," GML chief executive Tim Osborne said in a statement to RFE/RL. "The evidence we hope to obtain will make that even clearer."
The issue of Rosneft's alleged court tampering surfaced in 2015 when another Dutch court hearing a parallel case about Yukos CIS accepted shareholders' arguments. That case was ultimately settled, with the shareholders receiving about $400 million in compensation.
In November, after a Dutch newspaper published some of those e-mails, Baker Botts denied the allegations, which it repeated in a statement to RFE/RL on June 30.
"Any suggestion that Baker Botts lawyers perverted justice in Armenia is false. At all times Baker Botts lawyers acted lawfully and ethically," the firm said.
For its part, Rosneft said: "The Armenian issues with allegations of impropriety made by both parties against each other were fully briefed in court and settled...as part of an overall settlement. Discussions of separate episodes are futile."
The allegations of court tampering raise the stakes significantly in the $50 billion arbitration fight. If the shareholders succeed in deposing Baker Botts lawyers and the Dutch appeal court hearing the arbitration case agrees to consider that evidence, it could deal a substantial blow to Rosneft and the Russian government.
The shareholders won a small victory on June 22 when a U.S. judge in California authorized subpoenas of Edward Mouradian, another lawyer who allegedly was involved in the Armenian court cases on behalf of Rosneft.
Under Dutch law, new evidence can be introduced in the appeals court hearings.
"It's clearly become an issue of whatever you can to undermine the credibility of the other party, and this only confirms that this is a highly political case and the Yukos claimants hopes that the appeals court will see it in those terms,” said Gus Van Harten, who studies international arbitration law at the Osgoode Hall Law School in Toronto.
He said the Yukos case has taken on overt political tones, both internationally and domestically, far beyond how arbitration disputes typically are sorted out.
"What classically might have been a legal or political dispute, within a country, is morphing into a larger international dispute," he told RFE/RL.