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New Charges Brought Against Russia's Khodorkovsky

Mikhail Khodorkovsky at a court hearing in Moscow in May 2005
Russian prosecutors have reportedly brought new charges against jailed former Yukos head Mikhail Khodorkovsky.

Khodorkovsky has served just over half of an eight-year sentence in a prison in eastern Siberia on fraud and tax-evasion charges. Once Russia's richest man, he was convicted in 2005 in a trial that critics condemned as a Kremlin vendetta for the oil executive's anti-Kremlin criticism and political ambitions.

'Same Absurd Nonsense'

His lawyers say they have yet to clearly establish what their client now stands accused of but believe the new accusations are tied to a set of charges for theft and money laundering that prosecutors have been preparing for more than a year.

"They are old accusations -- the same episodes, the same volume, the same absurd nonsense," Yury Schmidt, a lawyer for the jailed businessman, told RFE/RL's Russian Service. "They've just been reused with a certain purpose."

Prosecutors in February 2007 accused Khodorkovsky and his jailed business partner Platon Lebedev of stealing more than $34 billion in oil from Yukos, the now-dismantled Russian oil company founded by Khodorkovsky.

In a statement posted on their website, Khodorkovsky's lawyers said the latest charges reflected uncertainty among investigators after Vladimir Putin handed over presidential power to his protege Dmitry Medevedev in May.

Schmidt says the accusations are a ploy to "buy time" while waiting for new instructions from the Kremlin.

"People in our country are used to receiving orders from the top," Schmidt says. "And there's now a different configuration at the top. So investigators have decided to wait for a clearer stance and new directives."

Medvedev, a former lawyer seen as more liberal than his predecessor, has vowed to improve Russia's legal standards and human rights record. Medvedev has yet to voice his opinion of the Khodorkovsky case.

Schmidt said last week that the defense team had advised their client to lodge an appeal for early release.

He told Ekho Moskvy radio that he hoped a Russian court would be more impartial with Medvedev in office.

Interview With Former Cellmate

Yukos, once Russia's biggest oil producer, was broken up and sold off in auctions to pay off what authorities claimed were billions of dollars in back taxes.

The bulk of the company's assets were bought by the state-controlled company Rosneft, making it Russia's largest oil producer.

The new charges come as Khodorkovsky's former cellmate claimed in an interview published on June 30 that he had been blackmailed into falsely accusing the former tycoon of breaking prison rules.

A court last year cited the alleged breach -- failing to keep his hands behind his back during an exercise period -- as a motive for refusing to grant Khodorkovsky early release from prison.

The former cellmate, a car thief, told the weekly "Vlast" newspaper that a prison official had threatened to call off his early release if he didn't accuse Khodorkovsky. He was freed three months after the incident.