MOSCOW, Russia — Nearly every day for the past 20 months, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, once Russia’s richest man, has been led handcuffed into a small courtroom here to defend himself against charges that could keep him in jail through 2017.
Khodorkovsky, who publicly defended himself and cross-examined witnesses despite a team of six lawyers, usually stuck to the script. He challenged the prosecution’s arguments, logic and math. He called witnesses, including former government ministers, and managed to evoke words from them that supported his case.
On Tuesday morning, Khodorkovsky the lawyer hung up his cap. Into the courtroom stepped Khodorkovsky, prisoner of conscience.
“Much more than two people’s fates lie in your hands,” Khodorkovsky told the judge, referring to himself and his former business partner Platon Lebedev. “Right here and right now, the fate of every citizen of our country is being decided.”
The speech marked the end of public hearings into the case against Khodorkovsky and Lebedev. They are charged with embezzling more than 200 million tons of oil and laundering nearly $100 million in proceeds. The judge said he would deliver his verdict on Dec. 15.
Khodorkovsky and his lawyers say they have little doubt the two men will be found guilty. They have accused close associates of Vladimir Putin, Russia’s powerful prime minister, of orchestrating the campaign against Khodorkovsky in order to appropriate the oil assets that once made Yukos, the company he founded, Russia’s biggest oil company.
Already serving eight years in prison on charges of fraud and tax evasion, Khodorkovsky was due to conclude his sentence in October 2011. Within weeks of that, Russia is scheduled to hold nationwide parliamentary elections, and a presidential vote is set for March 2012.
The second case, Khodorkovsky's team argues, is designed to keep him in jail even longer — and to ensure that he is safely ensconced in a Siberian prison as Russia’s election season kicks off.
Prosecutors have asked for the second charges to carry a 14-year sentence, with time off for the eight years that will have already been served, meaning Khodorkovsky and Lebedev risk sitting in jail until October 2017.
The trial is something that Russia’s leaders would rather forget, and is one of the few issues that has caused Putin, a man who works hard to present an image of total self-control, to explode publicly.
Yet it continues to haunt a country that has found it increasingly difficult to attract foreign investors, while other emerging markets have found it much easier to shake off the effects of the financial crisis.
“I am ashamed for my country,” Khodorkovsky told the court, in a rousing 20-minute speech that ended with his supporters — and many Russian journalists — in the room erupting into applause.
“A state that destroys its best companies, which are ready to become global champions — a country that holds its own citizens in contempt, trusting only the bureaucracy and the security services — this is a sick state,” he said.
He decried President Dmitry Medvedev’s rhetoric on modernizing the economy. “Who is going to modernize the economy? Prosecutors? Policemen? Spies?” he asked, his voice rising with controlled anger. “We already tried such a modernization. It did not work,” he said, referring to the Soviet era.
Since his arrest in 2003, Khodorkovsky has carefully reshaped himself into the main martyr of Russia’s struggling liberal community, calling on the country to abandon its current spy-filled leadership and turn toward democracy and human rights. Some approach that new image cynically, noting that Khodorkovsky rose to great wealth in the ruthless 1990s, employing the kill-or-be-killed measures that allowed for the creation of a small gaggle of powerful oligarchs.
Yet many of those oligarchs, like metal tycoons Oleg Deripaska and Vladimir Potanin, continue to walk free and enjoy a great measure of political support. Khodorkovsky’s is a case of selective justice, his supporters argue.
“This is not about me and Platon,” Khodorkovsky said, referring to Lebedev by his first name. “It is about hope for the citizens of Russia — hope that tomorrow the court will be able to protect their rights.”
“It’s hard for me to live in prison — I don’t want to die here,” he said. “But my beliefs are worth dying for.”
Outside the court, Mikhail Kasyanov, who served as prime minister while Putin was president, and as the campaign against Khodorkovsky was kicking off in 2003, called the jailed tycoon’s speech “important.”
“We are losing Russia,” Kasyanov said. He said that he had “minimal hope” that the court would return a not guilty verdict. “We all know the court system is practically a department of the power vertical,” he said, referring to the tightly controlled bureaucracy built by Putin.
Kasyanov said Putin personally told him in 2003 that Khodorkovsky had been arrested because he had been funding opposition parties in the parliament.
Despite that, it’s unlikely most Russians will hear of today’s events. The trial gets no coverage on national television, from which most Russians get their news. The Levada Center, a Russian pollster, found last month that just 2 percent of Russians follow the trial “very closely,” while 26 percent had never heard of it. And yet, 42 percent of those polled said they were sure Khodorkovsky’s fate would be decided “in the halls of power.”
Editor's note: This story has been updated to correct that Khodorkovsky and Lebedev have been charged with embezzling more than 200 million tons of oil.