Russian President Vladimir Putin has justified the 2003 imprisonment of the former oil tycoon and one of his main opponents, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, calling him "a swindler" whose firm, former oil giant Yukos, was involved in fraud and murder.
In a video interview with TASS news agency, a portion of which was published on March 12, Putin also said that Russian laws must take priority in the case of U.S. investor Michael Calvey, who is currently under house arrest in Moscow for alleged financial fraud.
"Do you think the employees of [Yukos's] security service were killing people on their own initiative, on their own whim? I think that is not the case. It never happens like that. But as it was not proven, then it is not proven. But his other illegal activities were proven and therefore he received a corresponding prison term," Putin said.
Putin was likely referring to Yukos's former security chief, Aleksei Pichugin, who is serving a life sentence on murder charges stemming from the 1988 murder of the mayor of Nefteyugansk, a Siberian city where some of Yukos's biggest pumping facilities were located.
In 2015, the Federal Investigative Committee -- the Russian equivalent of the FBI -- filed charges against Khodorkovsky, accusing him of ordering the murder of the mayor, Vladimir Petukhov, and another official.
Russian prosecutors alleged two other Yukos employees were involved in the killings: Leonid Nevzlin and Pichugin. Pichugin has been labeled a political prisoner by Western rights groups. Nevzlin, who lives in Israel, was tried in absentia by a Russian court and convicted in 2008. Israel has refused Russia’s request to extradite him.
Once Russia's largest company, Yukos was dismantled after the 2003 arrest of Khodorkovsky, its chief executive officer. He was convicted of financial crimes at two trials that he and his supporters contend were engineered by the Kremlin to punish him for challenging Putin and as a way to increase the Kremlin's control over oil export revenues.
The main production assets of Yukos were sold at auction and ended up in the hands of state oil company Rosneft.
Khodorkovsky, who spent 10 years in prison before he was released and left Russia after being pardoned by Putin in 2013, currently resides in the West.
He wrote on Twitter after the last portion of Putin's interview was released that the president himself committed "a scam" by initiating amendments to the constitution that would allow him to run for a fifth presidential term in 2024 after his current second consecutive term expires.
"I heard that Putin called me a swindler... It is a rare case when I let the winner's title go to Vladimir Vladimirovich [Putin]. Such a scam like he committed with the Constitution and his [presidential] terms is impossible to outbid," Khodorkovsky wrote in the tweet.
Talking about the case against Calvey and his associates, Putin said the last word in the case will be made by a court.
"We must begin with our domestic legislation and give priority to Russian law," Putin said.
Calvey and several other executives and employees of the Russia-based private-equity group Baring Vostok were detained in Moscow last February and charged with financial fraud.
They all deny any wrongdoing and say the case is being used against them in a corporate dispute over the control of a Russian bank. Calvey was released under house arrest in April.
The arrests stunned many Western investors and drew complaints from high-level Russian business leaders and government officials, who questioned the motivation of the courts and prosecutors.
Baring Vostok is one of the largest and oldest private-equity firms operating in Russia. It was founded in the early 1990s and manages more than $3.7 billion in assets. The company was an early major investor in Yandex, Russia's dominant search engine.
Calvey is one of two Americans currently facing potential trial in Russia on charges supporters say are groundless. Paul Whelan, a former U.S. Marine, has been behind bars since December 28, 2018, when he was arrested on an espionage charge he denies.