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Jailed Russian Tycoon Faces Fresh Charges In Moscow


Mikhail Khodorkovsky at a 2008 parole hearing in Chita

Mikhail Khodorkovsky at a 2008 parole hearing in Chita

MOSCOW (Reuters) -- Former oil billionaire Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who was jailed for eight years in Siberia at a time when the Kremlin was reining in the political power of Russian oligarchs, will face another trial next month.

A Moscow city court spokeswoman said on February 19 that Khodorkovsky, once Russia's richest man and the head of oil giant YUKOS, would stand trial for fraud and theft from March 3.

"A judge of the Khamovniki district court has issued an order to escort Mikhail Khodorkovsky...to Moscow from the place of his imprisonment," spokeswoman Anna Usachyova said.

Russian news agencies said Khodorkovsky and his former business associate Platon Lebedev were being charged with embezzling nearly 1 trillion rubles ($27.5 billion).

The 2003 arrest of Khodorkovsky for tax fraud, and the subsequent confiscation of his assets under then-President Vladimir Putin, drew criticism from Western businessmen, who felt the billionaire was unfairly targeted because of his political ambitions.

Khodorkovsky has always proclaimed his innocence, saying he was the victim of corrupt officials under Putin who wanted to carve up his business empire.

The new charges will be a political challenge for President Dmitry Medvedev, who took office last year promising to guarantee the rule of law in Russia.

The jailing of Khodorkovsky silenced opposition from powerful Russian businessmen to Putin's policies aimed at enhancing the government's control over the economy and strengthening the political power of the Kremlin.

Khodorkovsky's YUKOS, one of the country's biggest private empires, was bankrupted by huge back tax claims, and its best assets ended up in the hands of state-controlled rival Rosneft, whose chairman is Putin's close associate Igor Sechin.

The new trial of Khodorkovsky will be awkward for Medvedev, who is seeking to improve Russia's image and attract foreign investors during a global economic crisis.

Earlier this week, Russian media quoted officials as saying the new trial could be conducted via a video link with the prison in the Chita region bordering China, where Khodorkovsky is serving his term.

Khodorkovsky's lawyers rejected such suggestions, saying a six-hour time difference would turn the whole affair into a logistical nightmare.
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