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Wiesel Kicks Off Campaign To Free Khodorkovsky

Handcuffed former Yukos head Mikhail Khodorkovsky is led away from Moscow's Khamovniki District Court
Nobel Peace laureate Elie Wiesel has launched a global campaign to free imprisoned Russian oil magnate Mikhail Khodorkovsky, whom he calls a "political prisoner."

Khodorkovsky has served six years of an eight-year prison sentence in Russia on charges of tax evasion. He is currently being tried on new charges of embezzling $25 billion from Russia's now-defunct Yukos oil giant, which he once headed. If convicted in that case, Khodorkovsky could face up to 22 more years in a Russian prison.

Wiesel hosted a lunch in New York with about 30 prominent Americans on June 24 ahead of Russian President Dmitry Medvedev's meeting at the White House with U.S. President Barack Obama.

Also attending that lunch were two former U.S. national security advisers, as well as experts on Russia, the law, human rights, and the media. The group discussed ideas on how pressure could be brought on Medvedev and Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin to release Khodorkovsky.

Wiesel said the aim of the gathering was to help Khodorkovsky because "he is a political prisoner." The 1986 Nobel Peace Prize winner and Holocaust survivor said all of the guests think Khodorkovsky's case is "a political case" and that "he is not legally convicted."

The gathering suggests that the human rights group Wiesel founded after winning the Nobel Peace Prize -- the Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanity -- is making Khodorkovsky's case one of its top priorities.

In Washington, at a news conference following their meeting at the White House, neither Obama nor Medvedev mentioned the issue of Russia's rights record.

Kremlin Foe

Once Russia's richest man, Khodorkovsky angered Putin's government by funding opposition parties before the 2003 parliamentary elections. He also had questioned Kremlin policy on foreign participation in the oil industry at a time the Moscow was increasingly focused on restoring its control over Russia's vast petroleum wealth.

Khodorkovsky was arrested in October 2003 after the multibillion-dollar tax claim against him. Yukos' assets were frozen, and the company was declared insolvent 2006.

Since then, Khodorkovsky's imprisonment has been widely seen in the West as the Russian government's punishment for his political ambitions and as a warning to other powerful Russian business tycoons not to criticize or compete against Kremlin officials.

In March, a Yukos lawyer argued before the European Court of Human Rights that the Russian government deliberately sought to "destroy" the now-defunct oil giant.

In the second trial currently under way, two witnesses gave a boost this week to Khodorkovsky's defense.

Trade and Industry Minister Viktor Khristenko and former Economy Minister German Gref testified that the alleged embezzlement could not have taken place without official knowledge.

But in an interview with RFE/RL this week, Khodorkovsky's lawyer Yury Shmidt said he doubted such testimony would have any bearing on the court's verdict.

Shmidt described Putin and Deputy Prime Minister Igor Sechin as the "engine" driving the Khodorkovsky case, adding that "they don't attach any significance to the testimony of Gref and Khristenko since they are absolutely confident that the court will deliver the verdict that it has been ordered to deliver. And I am very much afraid that this will be the case."

Shared Fates

Other former executives of Yukos subsidiaries also have been tried and jailed on charges of fraud and embezzlement.

A Moscow court sentenced Sergei Shimkevich -- the former director of Yukos production subsidiary TomskNeft, to 12 years in prison in March after finding him guilty of embezzling $200 million.

Two of Shimkevich's former associates also received prison sentences. Oleg Klyucherev was sentenced to 8 1/2 years in prison and Oleg Kolyada was sentenced to 7 1/2 years.

But on June 24, a Moscow court closed the case against former Yukos Vice President Vasily Aleksanyan, who was accused of embezzling some $330 million from TomsNeft and shares worth nearly $500 million from other oil companies. Aleksanyan also was accused of money laundering.

Aleksanyan told the court he understands that the court ruling -- which held that the statute of limitations had expired on the case -- did not exonerate him of the charges.

But Aleksanyan, who has been suffering from AIDS and cancer during the three years he has spent in prison waiting for his case to go through the courts, said he has "no time to strike for the truth" and therefore does not object.

written by Ron Synovitz and Brian Whitmore based on RFE/RL and agency reporting