Accessibility links

Breaking News

The Khodorkovsky Show

Russian police lead Mikhail Khodorkovsky out of a police van and into a Moscow court on March 4.
Russian police lead Mikhail Khodorkovsky out of a police van and into a Moscow court on March 4.
The trial that began in Moscow's Khamovnichesky District Court on March 3 is fundamentally different from the one that took place in the Meshchansky District Court four years ago. It is being conducted on a far broader scale and with far greater pomp. And yet for some reason, despite the total absurdity and lunacy of the charges, it still offers the hope that the outcome will be more or less positive. Why is that?

Perhaps because we have waited so long for this case to come to trial, and had virtually given up hope that the defendants would be brought to Moscow? Or perhaps we simply want desperately to believe that the trial will end in a miracle? That even if the defendants are not released, their release will be a step closer?

Many of those who were in the courtroom on the opening day have confirmed that the two defendants have aged. That's hardly surprising, no one looks better for serving time in prison. But it does make people wiser and purer -- especially those who serve out their terms with the dignity of Mikhail Khodorkovsky and Platon Lebedev.

But at this stage the trial has barely started, and no one knows how it will unfold. In accordance with the law, the proceedings at this stage are closed to the public, while procedural issues are addressed. The defense lawyers have offered no prognosis, but the preliminary hearings could last for several days while the actual trial will take at least six months.

Careful Choreography

What strikes you immediately is how well the entire proceedings and ancillary measures have been organized. The court building and the surrounding streets are cordoned off by police, Interior Ministry and Justice Ministry troops, and court bailiffs, all of whom are trying to behave properly, especially in their dealings with journalists.

The courtroom selected for the hearings is the largest in the building, on the third floor. A cage with bulletproof glass has been installed for the defendants. Photographers and cameramen were admitted to the courtroom along with journalists from the most influential media, while those who did not arrive early enough were ushered into another courtroom on the second floor that had been equipped with three huge plasma-screen televisions showing the trial proceedings.

On the first day of the trial, journalists only got to see a few minutes of the televised proceedings. At exactly midday, the plasma screens went blank. The more fortunate journalists remained in the main courtroom awaiting the appearance of the judge who would declare the start of the proceedings, but even they were expelled from the courtroom, along with members of the public, when the judge appeared.

Prosecutor Dmitry Shokhin, wearing his general's uniform, watched the journalists being ushered out with a satisfied smile. Khodorkovsky, Lebedev, and their defense lawyers then demanded Shokhin's replacement and that of a second prosecutor, Valery Lakhtin, who was a prosecutor at the first trial.

As could have been expected, the judge rejected that request and a second request that the defendants be permitted to sit at the same table as their lawyers. But the latter did not lose heart. They have any number of further requests in reserve, which means that every single day of the trial is likely to prove eventful.

At some point, defense lawyers are likely to request that the case be closed, given the lack of evidence that a crime was committed. And they will produce a mountain of evidence sufficient to convince anyone who is trying to understand what Khodorkovsky and Lebedev are being accused of this time around.

Free, But Not Freedom, For All

If during the first trial it was theoretically possible to admit that Khodorkovsky might somehow have broken the law, this time it is far more difficult for any unbiased observer to believe the crazy charges that, for example, the entire profit from the sale of oil went not to Yukos but to Khodorkovsky and Lebedev personally.

It will be interesting to see what explanation Shokhin offers for all this. To judge by the defense appeal to close the case in light of the absence of any crime and by the explanation Khodorkovsky gave in the Ingodin District Court, in which he demolished one after another all the charges leveled against him and Lebedev, it is not the former top managers of Yukos who are currently in the dock, but the Prosecutor-General's Office and those investigators who cobbled together the indictment and the entire 144 volumes intended to substantiate it.

Khodorkovsky and Lebedev say they do not understand the essence of the charges against them, and I do not think they are just being clever. No one in their right mind could make sense of these charges. How is it possible to steal more oil than Yukos actually produced?

If the trial is open, and it looks as though it will be, then the public will realize just how flimsy the charges are. And what will happen then? Will the trial really end with some mockery of justice, as their lawyers have warned it will? The key question is what tactic the authorities will come up with to extricate themselves from the mess they have put themselves in through this trial. I cannot believe that before the eyes of such a huge number of people and with the broad interest in the trial around the world the judge would hand down a severe sentence. Something has to happen -- but what?

The whole world will be watching as the trial in the Khamovnichesky District Court unfolds. So, too, will those "hostages" of the Yukos affair who have already received lengthy prison sentences, like Aleksei Pichugin, who is serving a life sentence; or the mortally sick Vasily Aleksanian, whom the prosecutor's office refuses to leave in peace; or other former colleagues of Khodorkovsky. In short, all those whose fate could change, depending on the new verdict handed down by the Khamovnichesky court.

All will become clear in good time. The Khodorkovsky show is only just beginning, and admission is free.

Zoya Svetova is a columnist for "Novyye izvestia." This piece originally appeared on the website "Yezhednevny zhurnal." The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL