Former Russian oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky has pleaded not guilty to a new set of charges that could add 22 years to the sentence he is already serving.  Human rights activists say the imprisonment of Khodorkovsky, who was once Russia's wealthiest man, is aimed at silencing the influential Kremlin critic.

Presented in a Moscow court with four new charges against him, Mikhail Khodorkovsky pleaded not guilty as many times.  His co-defendant and former business partner, Platon Lebedev, also entered not guilty pleas and referred to the charges as schizophrenic and fraudulent. 

Who is Kodorkovky?

Khodorkovsky is the former head of the disbanded Yukos Oil Company.  He is accused of money laundering and of embezzling about $25 billion.  The former oligarch is serving an eight-year sentence following a 2005 conviction for fraud and tax evasion.

Khodorkovsky's defense attorney has said the charges against his client are contradictory because, in effect, they accuse him of stealing his own oil, and of secretly laundering money derived from open transactions and declared on public reports.

Putin vendetta?

Human rights activists say Khodorkovsky is the victim of a Kremlin campaign to silence an outspoken critic and potential rival to Vladimir Putin, who was president when the businessman was first charged.  President Dmitri Medvedev has spoken often about the need for legal reforms in Russia and refuses to intervene in the Khodorkovsky trial, saying courts must be independent. 

Irina Shcherbakova, a member of the board of the Memorial International human rights organization, told VOA that former President Vladimir Putin was likely behind Khodorkovsky's imprisonment to send a signal to other oligarchs to stay out of politics.

According to Shcherbakova, there is always talk in Russia that all such matters are associated with the likes and dislikes of the leader, and this plays a role in a regime that is partly authoritarian.  But she notes that even deeper processes are involved, specifically a lack of official desire to create civil society in Russia.

Former Yukos lawyer granted parole

In another development, a district court in Moscow has granted parole to Svetlana Bakhmina, a former Yukos Company lawyer who was serving a six-and-a-half-year prison sentence on charges of embezzlement and tax evasion.  The charges against her are seen as linked to an official campaign against Mikhail Khodorkovsky. 

Bakhmina, the mother of three, was released two years early.  She became pregnant in prison and gave birth to a daughter in late November.  Her case had prompted a petition drive calling for a presidential pardon.