New charges planned against Russian tycoon Khodorkovsky
The Prosecutor-General's office said Friday that it was planning to file new charges against oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, already awaiting a verdict on charges of tax evasion and fraud in a politically charged trial.
The statement that Khodorkovsky would face charges for money-laundering came just three days before the verdict is to be announced in the trial of the former head of the Yukos oil giant and business partner Platon Lebedev. Lawyers for Khodorkovsky said the timing of the announcement was aimed at pressuring the court to find him guilty.
Many observers say the case is the Kremlin's punishment for Khodorkovsky's funding opposition parties and to obstruct the power of the tycoon once ranked as Russia's richest man. Others contend that the parallel carve-up of Khodorkovsky's Yukos empire against a US$28 billion back tax bill was orchestrated by powerful Kremlin clans.
Yukos' main production unit, Yuganskneftegaz, was sold off against the tax debts in a state-ordered auction in December. It was sold to a mysterious shell company that in turn was acquired by state oil company Rosneft. On Friday, a court hearing a suit filed by Rosneft said Yukos must pay US$2.3 billion (euro$1.6 billion) for oil that Yukos received from Yuganskneftegaz but allegedly didn't pay for in 2005.
The bill comes in addition to a US$11 billion lawsuit filed by Rosneft for lost profits and unpaid taxes at Yuganskneftegaz due to be heard this month and next. Analysts have suggested the claims could lead to Rosneft eventually acquiring Yukos' remaining production assets.
Yury Schmidt, a lawyer for Khodorkovsky, said his client had been told months before that he and Lebedev were being investigated on money laundering claims and the list of charges against his client had been expected to grow.
``The fact that this is done on the eve of the verdict is very strange and in my opinion is a form of pressuring the judge,'' Schmidt told The Associated Press. ``There is no procedural necessity for the prosecutor's office to make this announcement now.''
Prosecutors have called for Khodorkovsky, 41, to receive the maximum 10-year sentence. Together with Lebedev, the tycoon is charged with rigging a privatization auction in 1994, stripping profits from a major fertilizer component maker, illegally using onshore tax havens to slash Yukos' tax bills as well as dodging millions in personal income tax.
Khodorkovsky's defense team insists that not only has the prosecution has failed to show their clients broke the law in place at the time, in some cases lawyers argue they weren't even involved in the alleged crimes.