Russia's political community is reeling over allegations by a court employee that high officials pressured a judge into convicting former oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky on fresh fraud charges.
An aide to the judge who presided over the recent trial of jailed former oil executive Mikhail Khodorkovsky says the court was pressured from above into delivering a guilty verdict.
In December, Judge Viktor Danilkin found Khodorkovsky guilty of stealing billions of dollars of oil from his own company and laundering the proceeds and extended Khodorkovsky's prison term, which was due to end this year, through 2017.
But Natalya Vasilyeva, who is Danilkin's assistant and a spokeswoman for the court, said in an interview published (in gazeta.ru) and broadcast today that verdict was imposed from above. "I can say that the whole judicial community understands very well that this is a made-to-order case and a made-to-order trial," she said.
Vasilyeva said Danilkin was summoned to the Moscow City Court on December 25, two days before he began reading the verdict, where he was to meet an "important person who had to give him clear instructions about the verdict."
On December 30, Danilkin sentenced Khodorkovsky and his business partner Platon Lebedev to 14 years in prison. The first eight years were to run concurrently with the eight-year sentences for tax evasion and fraud that the two had been serving since 2003 and which were set to finish this year.
According to Vasilyeva, unspecified top Russian officials were concerned that Danilkin's verdict would not be sufficiently harsh, "My suspicions are based on what I heard in the court corridors," she said. "I heard people who were close to the judge say that [Khodorkovsky's] verdict was written in the Moscow City Court, that it was all done in a hurry, very quickly, and that Danilkin had nothing to do with this verdict."
At another point in the interview, Vasilyeva said she knew "with absolute certainty that the verdict was brought [to the Khamovnichesky District Court] from the Moscow City Court."
In remarks reported by Russian news agencies, Danilkin denounced Vasilyeva's allegations as "slander."
Likewise, Anna Usacheva, a spokeswoman for the Moscow City Court, called the interview a "provocation" and a "well-planned PR act," in remarks reported by ITAR-TASS. "I'm certain that Natalya Vasilyeva will ... renounce her comments," she said.
Shmidt: 'Ring True'
In an interview with RFE/RL's Russian Service, Yury Shmidt, one of Khodorkovsky's defense attorneys, says he was already preparing to appeal Danilkin's verdict even before Vasilyeva's allegations. Shmidt adds that her claims ring true.
"For someone who had good career prospects to suddenly ruin everything and make such a statement, I see no other motive but her conscience," he said.
Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has long been viewed as the driving force behind the Kremlin's unrelenting prosecution of Khodorkovsky, who has been imprisoned since October 2003. Shortly before Danilkin's verdict was announced, Putin called Khodorkovsky a thief and said he should stay in prison.
Vasilyeva's interview has sent shock waves through Moscow's political community. It comes on the heels of a series of revelations in recent weeks that have embarrassed the Russian authorities.
Several luminaries who signed an open letter denouncing Khodorkovsky in 2005 -- most notably the socialite and former prima ballerina Anastasia Volochkova -- have announced that they were either tricked or coerced into doing so.
Also, a Moscow police sergeant testified in court on February 4 that he falsified a police report claiming that opposition activist Ilya Yashin had violently attacked police officers during a New Year's Eve demonstration in downtown Moscow. Yashin spent five days in jail over the incident.
The police officer, Artyom Charukhin, later recanted his testimony, claiming that he was pressured by Yashin and his lawyer.
Written by Brian Whitmore, with contributions from RFE/RL's Russian Service