Prosecutors file new charges against jailed Russian oil tycoon

Monday, February 5th 2007, 6:23 am
By: News On 6

MOSCOW (AP) _ Prosecutors filed new money laundering charges Monday against jailed Russian oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky and his business partner, opening a new front in the Russian authorities' campaign against the nation's one-time richest man.

Khodorkovsky's lawyer, Yuri Schmidt, told The Associated Press that prosecutors in the Siberian city of Chita had indicted his client on charges of laundering more than $20 billion in illegal oil revenues.

Schmidt said the charges were ``not simply absurd _ they are insane. ... Whoever wrote them was either mad or drunk.''

A Web site maintained by Khodorkovsky's supporters published a statement saying that prosecutors had also filed the same charges against Khodorkovsky's business partner Platon Lebedev. The statement said both men insisted on their innocence.

The founder of the now-bankrupt oil giant OAO Yukos, Khodorkovsky has been serving an eight-year sentence in a Siberian prison camp after being convicted in 2004 on fraud and tax evasion charges following a politically charged trial. Lebedev also is serving eight years on these charges.

Khodorkovsky and Lebedev were moved in December to a detention center in Chita for questioning, and brought to the regional prosecutor's office on Monday for their formal indictment amid tight security measures.

Lebedev's lawyer Konstantin Rivkin said that his client also had been charged with embezzlement.

The two men are accused of defrauding Yukos through trading schemes that allowed its owners to skim off profits and subsequently launder the illegal funds through Khodorkovsky's Open Russia foundation.

Khodorkovsky, who was one of Russia's most powerful men after building up Yukos into the country's top oil producer, was detained at gunpoint in October 2003.

Prior to his arrest and the parallel tax probe that saw most of his oil empire transferred to a state company, Khodorkovsky was estimated by Forbes magazine to have a fortune worth $15 billion.

The case was widely seen as a Kremlin-driven vendetta after Khodorkovsky funded opposition parties, as well as a means for the state to regain control of a chunk of the strategically important oil sector.

Khodorkovsky could face up to 15 years if convicted on the money laundering charges. Kremlin critics suggested the new charges were aimed at ensuring he remains in prison and presents no political threat.

Prison terms on separate charges are not usually served consecutively in Russia; convicts are jailed for the longest sentence.

On Sunday, police briefly detained lawyers for Khodorkovsky and Lebedev in what his legal team decried as the latest example of official harassment.

Five lawyers acting for both men were detained by police at Moscow's Domodedovo airport in the evening as they were waiting to register for a flight to Chita, Schmidt said.