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Amnesty Recognizes Khodorkovsky, Lebedev As 'Prisoners Of Conscience'

  • Daisy Sindelar

The convictions of Mikhail Khodorkovsky (left) and Platon Lebedev were upheld by a Moscow court this week.

The convictions of Mikhail Khodorkovsky (left) and Platon Lebedev were upheld by a Moscow court this week.

Amnesty International has recognized Mikhail Khodorkovsky and Platon Lebedev as prisoners of conscience, a week after Russian activists protested what they said was a decision by the global watchdog to deny the pair that status.

The decision followed a ruling on May 24 by the Moscow City Court to uphold the December 2010 convictions of former Yukos CEO Khodorkovsky and his associate Lebedev on charges of embezzlement and money laundering. Both men had their sentences reduced by one year but will still remain in prison until at least 2016.

The convictions capped the second trial for both Khodorkovsky and Lebedev, who were convicted of fraud and tax evasion in 2005. Supporters say both trials were fabricated as punishment for Khodorkovsky's open criticism of then President Vladimir Putin in the early 2000s.

In a statement, Amnesty International said it was recognizing the two men as prisoners of conscience, adding, "There can no longer be any doubt that their second trial was deeply flawed and politically motivated."

John Dalhuisen, the deputy director of Amnesty's Europe and Central Asia program, said the conclusion of the appeal left no doubt that the Russian justice system had failed to carry out the process in accordance with proper rules and principles.

"In the light of the decision pronounced yesterday," Dalhuisen said, "and the very conspicuous failure of Russia's lower courts to deliver justice in this case -- in this case to address the serious shortcomings in the conduct of the investigation and the second trial of Mikhail Khodorkovsky and Platon Lebedev -- we concluded that the Russian justice system was incapable of delivering justice in their case. And it's for that reason that we have now called them prisoners of conscience."

Outpouring Of Anger

Amnesty International's decision came in the wake of an outpouring of anger from the Russian activist community, which believed the group had definitively denied prisoner-of-conscience status to Khodorskovsky and Lebedev earlier this month.

The secretary-general of Amnesty International, Salil Shetty, on May 12 wrote an open letter in response to 45 prominent artists and intellectuals who had asked the group to bestow prisoner-of-conscience status on Lebedev and Khodorkovsky.

In the letter, he said "the existence of a political motivation behind someone's detention is not sufficient for Amnesty International to consider them a prisoner of conscience" and that the organization would only give individuals the designation "if it can say with confidence that none of the criminal charges brought against them are justified."

He added, however, that his organization would "reconsider" its position "in the light of the forthcoming appeal."

In this, Amnesty was making a clear distinction between the first trials of Khodorkovsky and Lebedev -- in which the charges may have been politically motivated but nonetheless had some basis in fact -- and the second, which Amnesty's Dalhuisen calls "indistinguishable from the first" and therefore wholly political.

Amnesty International defines a prisoner of conscience as an individual who's been detained solely for the exercise of a right or on account of their identity.

"We're really not at all satisfied with respect to the second trial that there is anything new that amounts to a genuine criminal offense," Dalhuisen said. "So it's a combination of politically motivated prosecution -- on account of who an individual is, or what they've come to represent, or what they've declared -- with profoundly unfair judicial proceedings relating to offenses for which the two have already been convicted."

The international community was scathing in its assessment of Lebedev and Khodorkovsky's second trial in December. EU foreign-policy chief Catherine Ashton said allegations of procedural irregularities were a matter of "serious concern," and Amnesty International itself criticized harassment of witnesses and refusal by the court to hear key defense witnesses.

'Water' vs. The 'Stalinist Spider'

In his final statement before the sentence was pronounced on May 24, the 47-year-old Khodorkovsky, who has been in jail since 2003, compared the proceedings to a Soviet-era show trial, and said his verdict was "gibberish" pieced together by some "venomous Stalinist spider."

Aleksei Simonov, the head of the Glasnost Defense Foundation and the person spearheading the drive to recognize Lebedev and Khodorkovsky as prisoners of conscience, had been among those to criticize Amnesty International's leeriness regarding the label.

But today, he told RFE/RL's Russian Service he believed the human rights group was simply waiting for the appeals hearing to come to an end before making a final judgment.

"This is directly connected to the decision by the Moscow court," Simonov said. "[Amnesty] had hoped there would be some indication that a morsel of justice was being served, that the court could demonstrate that they weren't prisoners of conscience. But with its decision, the Moscow court gave them no other choice, and they made their decision simultaneously with the court's."

Russia's Foreign Ministry has harshly criticized the Amnesty decision, which includes a call for the two men to be released when the sentences from their first convictions expire later this year. In a statement, the ministry said Khodorkovsky was an "economic criminal" and that Amnesty would have to "rest on its conscience."

Amnesty, which first coined the term prisoner of conscience in the 1960s, says there are currently more than 100 people worldwide with the special designation, including Moroccan rights activist Chekib El-Khiari, who was jailed in June 2009 for speaking out against corruption, and Vietnamese activist Cu Huy Ha Vu, who is serving a seven-year sentence for "conducting propaganda against the state" after calling for a multiparty system.

The new designation is not likely to have any immediate impact on the Yukos detainees. But it will add to the growing drumbeat of criticism coming from within Russia and abroad over the Kremlin's handling of the case, and may heighten the mood as the European Court of Human Rights prepares to hear a challenge to the case on May 31.

Simonov said making Khodorkovsky and Lebedev prisoners of conscience was a small step with long-term consequences.

"Water wears away stones. When the European Court made its first ruling in favor of a Russian plaintiff, few people believed that it would have a serious impact on the Russian justice system," he said. "But it has. And the impact is growing, in both quantity and quality."

Yelena Polyakovskaya of RFE/RL's Russian Service and RFE/RL correspondent Claire Bigg contributed to this report

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