Modern Day Show Trial

January 1, 2014

From the editors of

Mikhail Khodorkovsky was unjustly jailed from October 2003 to December 2013. There were two central motives behind the Kremlin’s campaign against Khodorkovsky: eliminating Khodorkovsky as a political opponent, and seizing the assets of Yukos to bring them under the ownership and control of Kremlin allies. He had every opportunity to leave Russia prior to his arrest, once it became clear that Russian officials who perceived him to be a threat were targeting him. But – as a patriot, philanthropist and family man in addition to being a business leader – he chose not to flee his homeland so he could stand trial and prove his innocence there.

The prosecution of Khodorkovsky has been a watershed in Russia’s modern political evolution. His plight was intended to be, and has in fact become, a lesson to all Russian citizens of the limits on the rights and freedoms of the post-Soviet era. Khodorkovsky has become the public face of the “legal nihilism” that former President Medvedev conceded to be a scourge afflicting Russia. His prolonged imprisonment signaled the predominance of corrupt state officials imposing their political and mercantile interests upon Russia’s law enforcement and judicial bodies, and indeed upon an entire country repeatedly betrayed by empty promises of modernisation.

First trial: 2004 to 2005

Khodorkovsky was arrested in 2003 on trumped up charges of tax evasion, fraud and embezzlement. His first trial ended with an eight-year conviction in 2005 and was broadly recognized as being politically motivated.

The flagrant abuses of state power in Khodorkovsky’s first trial gave rise to a new term in the Russian language: “Basmanny justice” (referring to the Basmanny District Court of Moscow where Khodorkovsky was taken after his arrest), now a widely understood shorthand for Russia’s corrupt, brutal and politically subservient judicial system.

During his first trial, in court Khodorkovsky was kept in a cage of heavy steel bars, constantly surrounded by armed guards. When not in court, he was detained in Moscow’s Matrosskaya Tishina detention facility, a notorious centuries-old jail normally reserved for violent criminals, not people accused of economic crimes. This was the modern revival of the Soviet show trial.

After being declared guilty and losing his appeal in 2005, Khodorkovsky was banished to a remote penal colony thousands of kilometres east of Moscow. He was transferred back to Moscow in 2009, only to stand as a defendant in a second trial.

Second trial: 2009 to 2010

In February 2007, as Khodorkovsky neared eligibility for release on parole, the authorities announced absurd new charges of embezzlement and money laundering. The bizarre charges alleged that he and others had physically embezzled the entire oil production of Yukos for several years. In addition to being physically impossible, this allegation was also manifestly illogical given that by then Russian courts had deemed that Yukos had in fact sold the same oil with no embezzlement having occurred.

The defence gave obvious grounds for outright dismissal of the case before trial, but the court pushed ahead with a second trial, which ran from March 2009 to December 2010. In court, Khodorkovsky was held inside an aquarium-like glass and metal prisoners’ box, with small slots enabling him to exchange documents and confer with his lawyers under the close supervision of armed guards. When not in court, he was again held under harsh conditions at Moscow’s Matrosskaya Tishina detention facility.

Hopes that the authorities would conduct the trial with some observance of due process were dashed as the trial unfolded. Instead, the trial became an “exercise in the absurd that could come straight from the pages of Gogol or Kafka.”

Even before the court delivered the verdict, then-Prime Minister Vladimir Putin stated on national television that Khodorkovsky’s guilt was “proven in court” and that “a thief must sit in jail.” This brazen intrusion into the judicial process was only the latest instance of Putin’s public intervention in Khodorkovsky’s case.

On December 27, 2010, the Judge declared Khodorkovsky guilty, and three days later sentenced him to an overall total of fourteen years in prison, exactly as the prosecution had requested. The sentence was reduced to thirteen years upon appeal in May 2011, pushing his release date to 2016. This not only prevented Khodorkovsky’s release in October 2011 after finally completing his initial eight-year term; it also ensured that he would be locked away during the parliamentary elections of December 2011 and presidential elections of March 2012.

Khodorkovsky is now serving his sentence at Penal Colony 7 near the town of Segezha, in the region of Karelia close to the border with Finland.

Khodorkovsky was not the only direct victim of the Kremlin’s campaign against Yukos. To support the specious prosecution of Khodorkovsky and the unlawful breakup of Yukos, investigations were launched targeting over fifty Yukos executives, employees and owners. Hundreds of others fled Russia fearing political persecution. Of those who stayed many were prosecuted and five remain in jail.