Russian Fraud Trials of Energy Executives Ruled Unfair

STRASBOURG, France (CN) — Russia did not give fair trials to the country’s former richest man and a second man who criticized President Putin, the European Court of Human Rights ruled Tuesday.

Before they each spent a decade in a Siberian prison camp for tax evasion and fraud, Mikhail Khodorkovskiy and Platon Lebedev had held leadership roles at the Russian oil company Yukos. They were first convicted in 2005 and then again in a second trial in 2010. 

Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny leaves the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, eastern France, on Nov. 15, 2018. (AP Photo/Jean-Francois Badias)

As the Strasbourg-based court ruled today, however, “[their] rights to participate effectively in the trial court proceedings … were restricted.”

The Russian government had accused the former oil and gas executives of abusing regulations that encouraged development in remote areas of Russian to avoid paying taxes. But their arrests were widely seen as a political maneuver by Russian President Vladimir Putin to consolidate power. 

Putin was, at the time, struggling to contain the power of the Russian oligarchs, and Khodorkovskiy (also spelled Khodorkovsky) was an especially useful target as he had been critical of the Russian government. In 2001, before his arrest, he founded Open Russia, a foundation that advocates for human rights and democracy within the former Soviet Union. 

Both men were named as Prisoners of Conscience by human rights group Amnesty International, but the European Court of Human Rights ruled in 2013 that their trial was not itself politically motivated even if was ultimately unfair.

Tuesday’s ruling says Russia violated their right to a fair trial under the European Convention on Human Rights by holding the men in a glass box during legal proceedings and refusing to allow oil and gas experts to testify about the financial holdings.

Reiterating the previous ruling that the trial itself was not politically motivated, the court called it reasonable for the Russian government to suspect that they had been involved in illegal activities. 

The seven-judge panel also found that statements made by Putin during their trials did not violate their right to a presumption of innocence. Putin implied that the two men might have also been involved in murder and compared them to convicted Ponzi fraudster Bernie Madoff and American gangster Al Capone. 

Putin pardoned Khodorkovskiy in the run-up to the 2014 Olympic Games, which were held in Russia. Lebedev’s sentence was eventually reduced by another Russian court and he was released in 2015. 

Khodorkovskiy now lives in exile in London, where he’s restarted Open Russian and has been described by The Economist as “the Kremlin’s leading critic-in-exile.”

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