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Russia: Khodorkovskii Lawyer Says Russia 'Rebuilding The Gulag'

  • Daisy Sindelar --> Robert Amsterdam talking to RFE/RL (RFE/RL) On 16 October, Mikhail Khodorkovskii -- once Russia's richest man -- was interred at the Krasnokamensk penal colony, an isolated wasteland some 6,000 kilometers from Moscow. It was the latest, and most dramatic, move in the two-year ordeal of the former Yukos chief. But has the world heard the last of Khodorkovskii? One of his lawyers, Canadian Robert Amsterdam, says no. He spoke to RFE/RL today.

RFE/RL: Firstly, what can you tell us about Khodorkovskii's condition? It's now been more than two weeks since Khodorkovskii was taken to the Krasnokamensk penal colony. We know his wife Inna and some of his lawyers were able to see him last week. What did they have to say about Khodorkovskii's state of mind, and about the physical conditions at the prison?

Robert Amsterdam: I've spoken to the family. I can tell you that he's lost a tremendous amount of weight. I think it's very clear that all of us are shocked that the Russian Federation has been so transparent as to demonstrate to the world the resuscitation of the gulag. Vladimir Putin, who will be leading the G-8, is rebuilding the gulag. We really in the West need to understand the message that Mr. Putin is sending us. It isn't just that he wants to steal the oil and then send it to us, it is that he is prepared to be grotesquely obvious in his willingness to subvert democracy and to attack those who are viewed as even a possible source of opposition to him.

RFE/RL: Krasnokamensk is the site of a uranium-processing facility, and environmental and health standards are considered extremely low in the region. One human rights group put the average lifespan in the area at 42 years. Are you concerned about Khodorkovskii's ability to withstand the conditions of the prison for the next six years?

Amsterdam: Clearly, it is the intent of the Kremlin to continue to destroy his health in this sentence. The entire area is considered to be environmentally unsafe. We intend to bring this before every possible authority. His being placed there violates internal Russian law, it violates Article 3 of the European Convention, and it violates morality. So we intend to take steps to deal with it. But I certainly am not going to telegraph in advance any steps we may take to the Russians.

RFE/RL: As we know, Khodorkovskii is located over 6,000 kilometers away from Moscow; it takes a six-hour flight and a seven-hour drive to reach him. With this distance, it seems extremely difficult for him to maintain contact with his lawyers, and to maintain public awareness of his case. What are Khodorkovskii's visitation rights? Does he have access to any other form of communication?

Amsterdam: There's a difference between what he's allowed under the law and what he will be given. So if I tell you what the legal availability is, that isn't in any way reflective of what will happen to him. He is allowed a phone call frequently, but that hasn't been experienced yet. So we have to look at the track record before we can, in fairness, comment. I certainly want to avoid commenting about his prison or his prison authorities. I think that would be dangerous for him.

RFE/RL: Last week Khodorkovskii communicated for the first time from Krasnokamensk, through a very defiant, resolute statement posted on his website. Now, in the 2 November edition of the "Financial Times," there is a full-page ad from Khodorkovskii's associates, including Leonid Nevzlin, the majority shareholder of Menatep, which in turn holds a majority share in Yukos. The ad accuses the Kremlin of trying to "physically destroy" him and calling on supporters to help create a new political elite in Russia. Who is this advertisement meant to target? What kind of reaction are you hoping for from the West?

Amsterdam: This is not an ad taken out by Mr. Khodorkovskii. This is an ad taken out by friends of his, such as Mr. Nevzlin, who does not reside in the Russian Federation. I am sure that watching his close friend go through what he has has been extraordinarily painful for Mr. Nevzlin and for his colleagues who are now in Israel. I would gather that placing this ad is an attempt by them to demonstrate to the world that as long as they are living and breathing, Mr. Khodorkovskii will not be forgotten. Because I am sure that it is their great fear, as it is mine, that the moment the attention of the West turns away from him, something even more dramatic than being put into an environmentally unhealthy area will happen.

RFE/RL: All of these traumatic events have forced Khodorkovskii's associates and friends to adopt a kind of clan logic, supporting each other no matter what happens. We know that Berezovskii adopted the same approach. The Kremlin does the same. Do you feel that Russian politics or the Russian state is forcing Khodorkovskii's group to adopt this kind of clan logic?

Amsterdam: I don't think that's the case. In fact, to be fair, I think that's frankly very much not the case. I think Mr. Nevzlin and his folks have a very independent view, as is their right. I think Khodorkovskii's people are quite independent. But we have to be very careful in our mindset not to be too black-and-white about certain issues. Because there are people in the presidential administration who are aghast at what has happened to Khodorkovskii and Lebedev, and who recognize this is a violation of fundamental principles, and who want to make things right."

RFE/RL: Lawyers for Khodorkovskii's associate, Platon Lebedev, say they will appeal his six-year sentence at the Kharp high-security prison colony, in the Polar Urals. Is there a similar appeal under way for Khodorkovskii?

Amsterdam: I will not make that announcement here. It will be made at the appropriate time.

RFE/RL: Last week, while Russian Industry and Energy Minister Viktor Khristenko was in the United States, he was served a subpoena to appear in a U.S. court in connection with a lawsuit filed by minority shareholders of Yukos who say they collectively lost $3 million after the de facto renationalization of the oil giant. On the face of it, the lawsuit is potentially quite serious -- it targets the Russian government, four state-owned energy companies, and a number of government officials. But Khristenko, for one, doesn't seem to be taking it particularly seriously, and has suggested the case should be tried by a Russian court, and that it's Yukos that should be sued, not the government. How is this lawsuit likely to develop?

Amsterdam: What I can tell you is that Mr. Khristenko and others who have been involved in Yukos had better take the case seriously, because they will ultimately pay the price. And whether it's this year, it's next year, or it's 10 years, when you engage in criminal conduct, and when you steal assets, you can never make it right. And I have every belief there will be a day of reckoning for all of these officials who engaged in this theft, for all of these officials who have illegally imprisoned Khodorkovskii and Lebedev. They will all meet the ends they deserve.

RFE/RL: Russia is arguing that the United States has no jurisdiction in the shareholders' lawsuit because Yukos is a Russian company. Is this a viable argument?

Amsterdam: No, it's not. I'm not talking specifically about this case; I'm speaking generally. What the Russians are attempting to do in this case is pretend we're 50 years behind the times. We are in a new era of international law, we are in a new era of international human rights. They have signed the agreements; they need to read them.

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