May 18, 2008
'I’m constantly reminded that I’m in jail until further notice'
The Sunday Times, by Mark Franchetti, 18 May 2008
The former Russian oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky, now serving an eight year prison sentence, has accused one of prime minister Vladimir Putin’s most senior aides of plotting to have him arrested and stripping his oil company of billions.
Khodorkovsky, jailed on fraud and tax evasion charges, accused Igor Sechin, a former KGB officer who became deputy prime minister this month, of plundering his oil company “out of greed”.
Sechin, 48, a secretive figure, was formerly Putin’s deputy chief of staff and heads Rosneft, the state oil company which took over most of the assets once owned by Yukos, Khodorkovsky’s oil giant.
Khodorkovsky is currently awaiting trial on fresh charges of embezzlement and money laundering, which could lead to a new sentence of up to 27 years. He alleged that both cases were instigated by Sechin.
“The second as well as the first case were organised by Igor Sechin,” the tycoon claimed in an interview with The Sunday Times from a remand prison in the Siberian city of Chita, 4,000 miles east of Moscow.
“He orchestrated the first case against me out of greed and the second out of cowardice. Exactly how he managed to convince his boss is hard to say.
Maybe Putin really thought I was plotting some political coup, which is ridiculous, since at the time I was publicly supporting two opposition parties which at best could have won 15% in parliamentary elections. More likely they didn’t need any reason, just an excuse to raid Yukos, Russia’s most successful oil company.”
Khodorkovsky’s fate is now seen as a litmus test for Dmitry Medvedev, Putin’s protégé and Russia’s new president (Putin was barred by the constitution from serving more than two consecutive terms). A former lawyer who at 42 is the country’s youngest leader since Tsar Nicholas II, Medvedev has said his priority is to end Russia’s “legal nihilism”.
Many see Khodorkovsky’s case as a symbol of Russia’s selective justice and dubious court system – even some of his enemies admit his trial was a farce. Medvedev’s pledge to restore the rule of law has led some Khodorkovsky supporters to hope that he could pardon the jailed businessman. Kremlin insiders say it is not a decision Medvedev would take without Putin’s blessing.
Khodorkovsky would not comment on a pardon. He warned it will take time for Medvedev to act independently. “For a while Medvedev will be held back by his personal obligation to Putin.”
“The outcome of my case depends on the speed with which reform to the judicial system, which Medvedev has said he wants, will take place. In an independent court only a complete idiot would swallow the kind of case brought against me. Unfortunately reforms don’t happen overnight, but some steps taken by Medvedev’s team are cause for cautious optimism.”
Khodorkovsky, 44, who before his downfall was estimated to be worth ¸5bn, was arrested in October 2003 and sentenced in June 2005 to eight years on charges widely believed to have been politically motivated. Yukos has been stripped of its assets, broken up and sold in a series of dubious auctions, mainly to Rosneft after Putin appointed Sechin to be the company’s chairman.
He served part of his first sentence in a prison colony in Krasnokamensk, a bleak uranium-mining town near the Chinese border, where temperatures fall to -30C. He spent his days sewing shirts and gloves and was attacked one night by an inmate who slashed his face with a knife.
He was moved to a remand centre in the regional capital last year after fresh charges were brought against him of embezzling more than ¸15bn.
“The hardest thing by far is being separated from my family – my elderly parents, wife and four children,” he said. “They visit me but conditions were much better in the prison colony. Here they have to travel 4,000 miles for just two or three hours.”
In the penal colony Khodorkovsky was allowed visitors four times a year for three days at a time. Now he is only allowed out of his cell - where a camera monitors him around the clock - for an hour a day. Should he be sentenced a second time he will be transferred to an even tougher jail for hardened criminals, including murderers and rapists.
Last week a former inmate, who shared a cell with Khodorkovsky for a year, revealed how prison guards forced him to sign a statement accusing him of breaking prison rules.
“I was told to allege that I’d seen him walk in the yard without holding his hands behind his back, as prisoners are supposed to,” said the inmate.
“It wasn’t true but I was told that if I didn’t sign the statement they would make sure I wasn’t released early. So I signed, but later told Khodorkovsky.”
Khodorkovsky would have been eligible for early release only days later, a right the tycoon lost when the inmate’s statement was logged into his file. When Khodorkovsky’s lawyers demanded to see footage of the tycoon’s offence, prison authorities claimed it took place in the only spot not covered by the yard’s cameras.
“I’m constantly reminded that I’m in jail until further notice,” said Khodorkovsky, who spends his time studying the case against him. “As soon as one sentence is over they’ll add another and I can forget about early release. Day and night I’m under constant video surveillance. The nerves of my fellow cellmates usually go after six months, but so far I’m coping.”
“The years in prison, the isolation, isn’t easy but it’s bearable. I always used to read a lot, now I read even more. Education and reflection are prison’s great bonuses.”