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The Condition of Mikhail Khodorkovsky - a barometer of rule of law in Russia

Gabriela IONIȚĂ

In his 25 years of practice, Robert R. Amsterdam has handled numerous international business disputes and in a variety of emerging markets. Highly regarded for his strategic innovation and international reach, Amsterdam was retained by the Russian corporation YUKOS-Group MENATEP in 2003 for the defence of former CEO Mikhail Khodorkovsky - one of the most high profile cases in modern Russian history. London’s The Lawyer magazine named Robert Amsterdam one of the Hot 100 Attorneys in the UK for 2005. He is a member of the Canadian, New York and International Bar Associations. He earned his BA from Carleton University in Ottawa and studied law at Queens University in Ontario (LLB).

1700 days in prison for MBK so far. Despite you and your lawyers’ efforts team, human rights NGO’s representatives appropaches and  K sustainers’ demontrations nothing was to change his condition. What news you have concerning your well-known client?
Well, first of all, to understand why things are the way you said, you need to put this case into the context of state corruption and influence over the legal process.  Mikhail Khodorkovsky was singled out for selective persecution on baseless charges not only because of his support of democracy and civil society groups, but also because certain high-ranking officials conspired to steal the assets of Yukos. What followed his conviction was to prove that thing. If Russia is serious about building rule of law and joining the international community as a respo­si­ble state, the courts must be protected from the influence of these parties, and Khodorkovsky must be released. This is the only way things will move intro the right direction.

Premier Vladimir Putin has declared, during his latest visit to France, that there is the possibility to let MBK free, but this depends exclusively by President Medvedev. Does this change anything in the equation?
We view the condition of Mikhail Khodorkovsky as a barometer of rule of law in Russia.  If Medvedev is serious about building a functioning legal system, then we are optimistic that this includes fair treatment.  Things can not be worse than Putin, so I am cautiously optimistic in my support for the president’s new direction.

Debates between President Medvedev and German Chancelor Angela Merkel, led during President’s visit to Berlin, concluded that releasing MBK is not an international topic of disscution and some neccessary steps have to be crossed for this thing to happen. How do you comment that?
Russia’s legal proceedings are, indeed, of internal matter, but the human rights violations suffered by my client are of international concern, and a violation of Human Rights Charta and of the default obligations by Russia.
Have any measure been made about the above mentioned and what are tha chances for an amnesty?
I cannot offer information on our mea­sures at this juncture, nor specu­late on the liklihood of amnesty.  I will however say that freeing Khodorkovsky is strongly in the interests of the government and the Russian people to put the country’s reputation back on track toward legitimacy.

There have been disscutions, and you openely said it, about Russian justice system’s corrpution; it was also said that it is highly politized. What it is the status nowadays and if there are any signs of change?
A recent report this of Freedom House  stated it very succinctly:  “the courts remain subject to political caprice and can be reliably counted on to serve political goals when required to do so.”  I do not know any specific improvements to cite, but the fact that senior officials are now admitting Kremlin’s interference in many legal cases (which was unimaginable few years ago) can be a clue for things might change.

How would you characterize Russian media’s atitude towars your client? Was this of nature to help you, making you of public knowledge? Did they have a fair point of view?
Russia’s media is not free and independent, and anyone who writes supportively of my client’s plight can face the possibility of harassment and oppression from the government.  For the most part, the government controlled media works to build a narrative supporting the state’s criminal actions in this case.

You have often affirmed you’s worries concerning your client’s safety. Why ist hat? Obviously, Russian authorities do not need another marthyr…at least, not this kind of marthyr...
We do not refer here to the Russian authority as an item. There are certain powerful members of the government who have become overnight billio­nai­res from the assets stolen in this case, so Khodorkovsky has become an ener­gy hostage. No one is safe in Russia who threatens the bank account of a silovik.
MBK stated he is being optimistic, considering life in Krasnokamensk Prison (now, in Chita) it is not for sure to be envied, and prosecutors have a new file full of accusations. Even though, asked if Putin’s successor as Russian president could reverse the process, MBK said: “It will be so difficult for him, I can’t even imagine . . . Tradition, and the state of people’s minds, and the lack of forces able to [support] any movement towards the rule of law, everything’s against him. So . . . may God grant him the strength to do it. All we can do is hope.” Is this your opinion, too ? Look, a precedent already exists ( the in justice action against Mananei Aslamazian, chair-women of Internews   Russian branch  , was canceled and her lawyer said that it happened this way because of the new presidency).
I believe that Russia has the capacity to change itself and that the Russian people will not allow this brand of authoritarianism to last forever. There is a big difference bet­ween the power of government that we perceive, and the actual disagreement and the active forces at work behind the scenes.  I join my client in his optimism, but, as I said before, my optimism is quite moderate.

PS The russian businessman was arrested in October 2003 and sentenced in June 2005 to eight years on fraud and tax evasion charges. His energy company, Yukos, which he built into Russia’s biggest after acquiring it in a controversial privatisation in 1995, was sold piecemeal to pay off $28bn back tax charges – with its assets largely gobbled up by Rosneft, the state-owned oil company. He served the first part of his sentence in a prison colony in Krasnokamensk, a bleak uranium-mining town near the Chinese border. He was moved to the regional capital last year after new charges were trought against him of embezzling more than $30bn in Yukos’ oil sales.
While the whole world was watching the conflict between Russia and Georgia, the Ingodinsky Court of Chita reject the appeal for conditional release lodged by Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s lawyers. The former oligarch continues to serve his eight-year sentence in the colony near Krasnokamensk-town of the Chita region. About it Robert Amsterdam told: “There Is Nothing „New“ in the Khodorkovsky Charges”.

By Gabriela Ioniță

Publicat în : English  de la numărul 59

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