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Russia Charges Khodorkovsky With Organizing Murders

Mikhail Khodorkovsky speaks at a televised press conference on December 9.
Mikhail Khodorkovsky speaks at a televised press conference on December 9.

Russia has charged former oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky with organizing two murders and four attempted murders, accusations a spokeswoman for the exiled Kremlin critic called a "farce."

The charges add fuel to a bitter, 12-year struggle between Khodorkovsky and President Vladimir Putin, who has long suggested that the former head of now-defunct oil company Yukos had a Siberian city mayor killed to advance his business interests.

They come two days after Khodorkovsky, who was pardoned by Putin and whisked out of Russia in 2013 after more than 10 years in prison on financial-crimes charges he contends were fabricated, said that a new revolution in Russia was "inevitable and necessary."

Federal Investigative Committee spokesman Vladimir Markin said on December 11 that Khodorkovsky had been charged with organizing the 1998 killing of Vladimir Petukhov, the mayor of Nefteyugansk, where Yukos was headquartered at the time and had its main production asset.

Markin also said that Khodorkovsky was accused of involvement in the attempted killing of businessman Yevgeny Rybin in 1999. Rybin survived a shooting attack, but his bodyguard was killed.

Khodorkovsky was charged with the attempted murders of three others wounded in the shootings, Markin said, adding that he will be put on a wanted list "in the near future."

Investigators believe Khodorkovsky ordered subordinates to kill Petukhov and Rybin, "whose activities ran counter to the interests of Yukos," Markin said.

Markin said that Petukhov had been seeking to get Yukos to pay taxes that he said it owed to the state, and that Rybin had sued Yukos.

Russian investigators announced in June that they were reopening a criminal probe into Petukhov's killing. On December 7, Khodorkovsky said that he had received a summons to appear before the Investigative Committee on December 11 for questioning as "an accused person" in the slaying.

Khodorkovsky's spokeswoman, Kulle Pispanen, said on December 11 that Khodorkovsky would not comment on Markin's latest statements.

"If they like to play these games and announce new charges against Khodorkovsky every day, then let them entertain themselves," Pispanen said, but the former tycoon "will not take part in this farce."

Fast Rise, Fall

Khodorkovsky's career and the cases against him have defined Putin's 16 years in power.

A former Komsomol leader who made a fortune in the wild capitalism that followed the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, Khodorkovsky became Russia's richest man and the head of its biggest oil company.

He ran afoul of the Kremlin during Putin's first term, when he made public accusations of government corruption, funded opposition parties, and courted foreign oil companies as the head of Yukos, a private firm.

He was arrested at gunpoint in 2003 and convicted of fraud, tax evasion, and other financial crimes in two separate trials that supporters said were engineered by the Kremlin to punish him for challenging Putin and place the assets of Yukos in the hands of the state.

Former Yukos security chief Aleksei Pichugin is serving a life sentence after being convicted of organizing Petukhov's slaying and other killings. He and his supporters say he is innocent.

Khodorkovsky himself had not previously faced formal accusations of involvement in the mayor's slaying, but in televised comments in 2010, Putin suggested Khodorkovsky had blood on his hands and implied that he was behind the killing. Khodorkovsky denies involvement.

Back In Politics?

Putin abruptly pardoned Khodorkovsky in December 2013, and he was flown out of Russia the day he was released from a prison near the Arctic Circle. The pardon was widely seen as part of an effort to improve Russia's image ahead of the Winter Olympics in Sochi in February 2014.

Russia annexed Crimea the following month and has supported separatists in a conflict that has killed more than 9,000 people in eastern Ukraine since April 2014, leading the United States, European Union, and other Western nations to impose sanctions on Moscow.

Since his release, Khodorkovsky has continued to oppose the Kremlin from exile in Europe.

In an online news conference from London on December 9, Khodorkovsky said that Putin's government had brought Russia into international isolation and said the Kremlin's crackdown on democratic institutions and political dissent amounted to a "full-fledged unconstitutional coup."

He said that a new revolution in Russia was "inevitable and necessary" and that "Putin and his inner circle must be held accountable for what they have done before an independent court, adding, "This is my goal."

The next day, the Russian Prosecutor-General's Office said Khodorkovsky should be investigated on suspicion of extremism over the comments.

In his news conference, Khodorkovsky said that when he was pardoned he gave his word to Putin not to go into politics before his prison term would have ended, in 2014, and while he was taking care of his ailing mother. Since his mother died in August, Khodorkovsky said he felt he "no longer had any obligations."

With reporting by TASS, Interfax, AP, dpa, and AFP
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