Khodorkovsky Challenges Medvedev

Former Yukos chief Mikhail Khodorkovsky applied for parole on Wednesday in a bid to challenge President Dmitry Medvedev to follow through on promises to build an independent judiciary, his lawyers said.

The case could be the first test of Medvedev's desire to enforce the rule of law in a country that consistently ranks near the bottom of corruption rankings, said Igor Trunov, a high-profile lawyer not connected to the Khodorkovsky case.

Medvedev has kicked off his presidency with promises to combat rampant corruption and "legal nihilism," yet critics remain skeptical as to whether rhetoric will be transformed into tangible results.

"These words should be applied to real cases," Khodorkovsky's lawyer Yury Shmidt told a news conference. "If [Medvedev] succeeds in achieving the independence of the courts, it won't just be a reform, but a revolution."

Khodorkovsky's arrest in October 2003, on charges of fraud and tax evasion, was widely seen as a turning point toward greater state control in the rule of Medvedev's predecessor, Vladimir Putin. Kremlin critics claim that Khodorkovsky was the target of selective justice, and many observers saw the case against the man who was once Russia's richest as politically motivated.

Khodorkovsky, sentenced to eight years in a Siberian prison upon being found guilty by a Moscow court, became eligible for parole in October 2007 after serving half the length of his sentence.

Yet even if the court in Chita, a city 5,000 kilometers east of Moscow, agrees to free Khodorkovsky, the former tycoon would remain imprisoned until a second case brought against him last year is heard.

Khodorkovsky's pretrial detention on the second series of charges, which were brought in February 2007 and accuse him of large-scale embezzlement and money laundering, was last week extended until Nov. 2.

"We are treating these as two separate cases," Vadim Klyuvgant, another lawyer for Khodorkovsky, told the news conference.

Trunov, who represented victims of the Dubrovka hostage siege, said Khodorkovsky technically had good chances for parole but cautioned that the politicized record of the courts would likely work against him.

"The opinion of the president will be taken into account, of course. Everyone knows the phone lines have not been cut," Trunov said.

Klyuvgant said lawyers turned in the parole request to the Ingodinsky District Court in Chita on Wednesday afternoon and that the court had 10 working days to acknowledge receipt of the documents, after which hearings could begin.

"This is not an exceptional case," Shmidt said. "It's not a request for a pardon or amnesty."

Despite refusing to approach Medvedev with a request for a presidential pardon, which would require an admission of guilt, Khodorkovsky's lawyers said Medvedev should prove his commitment to upholding the rule of law.

"The end of legal nihilism won't come on its own," Klyuvgant said. "To sit around and wait for it … would be naive."

Were it to accept Khodorkovsky's request for parole, "the court would be upholding the call of the president to combat legal nihilism," he said.

Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's departure from the Kremlin was key in the lawyers' ability to convince Khodorkovsky to apply for parole, they said.

"Through conversations, Khodorkovsky made it clear that he has no complaints against Medvedev, and Medvedev doesn't have any private complaints against him," Shmidt said. "Medvedev did not put him in jail."

Khodorkovsky has accused Igor Sechin, a close Putin ally and now a deputy prime minister, of orchestrating the legal onslaught against him and Yukos, which was bankrupted by back tax claims of over $33 billion.

Rosneft, the state-run oil firm chaired by Sechin, scooped up the bulk of Yukos assets in forced bankruptcy auctions, becoming the country's largest oil producer.

Khodorkovsky's lawyers said they were encouraged by recent steps to clean up the country's courts but acknowledged that many of the characters involved in the Yukos affair could still play a prominent role in deciding Khodorkovsky's fate.

"This request will not be like walking across a bridge or along leafy, green streets. We understand that some people who organized the first and second cases against Khodorkovsky will play a role," Shmidt said.

Shmidt said that about half the country's prisoners who seek parole are granted their freedom.