Petition Pleads for Khodorkovsky Parole

MTLyudmila Loginova, 62, signing a petition Wednesday for Khodorkovsky to be released early in Chita, where a parole hearing is to be held on Thursday.
CHITA — Amid heavy drizzle outside the Chita Drama Theater, half a dozen campaigners on Wednesday gathered signatures for a petition to free jailed tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky on the eve of his parole hearing.

A total of 107 people signed up in two hours while they were filmed from a nearby rooftop by a group of men, whom the campaigners suspected of being security service officers.

A court in this east Siberian city, more than 6,000 kilometers east of Moscow, will consider Thursday whether to grant the country's most prominent prisoner his freedom, as he has served out more than half of his eight-year sentence on tax and fraud charges.

"We want the court to take these signatures into consideration when making a decision," said Marina Savvateyeva, deputy head of a local Khodorkovsky support group, as she stood in the rain on Chita's Teatralnaya Ploshschad, asking passers-by to sign the petition.

Khodorkovsky, once the country's richest man, fell from grace after crossing then-President Vladimir Putin over corruption and Khodorkovsky's financing of political parties. His Yukos oil firm was bankrupted under the weight of $33 billion in back tax charges.

Thursday's ruling is being seen as a litmus test for Putin's successor, Dmitry Medvedev, who has promised to uphold the rule of law and vowed to defeat what he calls "legal nihilism."

Medvedev gave Khodorkovsky's supporters some hope of a early release in June, when he said "the procedures for a pardon are open to any and all citizens convicted of one or another crime, including Khodorkovsky."

While Khodorkovsky has asked for parole, he has maintained his innocence and has not appealed to Medvedev for a pardon, however.

"If Mikhail Borisovich is set free it will be a very strong positive signal for the world community," Oleg Kuznetsov, head of the Chita support group, said during Wednesday's protest. "Dmitry Medvedev has been talking about the rule of law in the country. We hope his words will come true."

But Khodorkovsky's supporters said they were also realistic about the court verdict.

"If the verdict is negative, it will mean that nothing changed with Medvedev's coming to power and that Putin with his clan of siloviki are still fully in charge," Kuznetsov said.

The parole hearing comes as investors have recently expressed concern about Medvedev's ability to deliver on pledges of reform. Even before this month's conflict with Georgia, his three-month presidency has been marked by controversial episodes, such as the forced departure from the country of TNK-BP chief executive Robert Dudley and an attack by Putin on miner Mechel's pricing policy that wiped $8 billion off its share value.

Khodorkovsky's appeal for early release to Chita's Ingodinsky District Court last month followed new charges against him and his former business partner Platon Lebedev of embezzlement and money laundering. If convicted, the two men could face up to another 22 1/2 years in jail, defense lawyers say.

Khodorkovsky's lawyers have described the new charges as a rehash of a 2006 indictment.

In a written statement handed out by campaigners Wednesday, Khodorkovsky's lawyer Yury Shmidt said he was not expecting the Chita court to free Khodorkovsky, even if it granted his parole request, because of the upcoming second trial.

"The time for considering the second case has recently been prolonged for another three months, until Nov. 2," Shmidt said in the statement. "Something's not going smoothly up there [in the Kremlin], so they are trying to play for time."

If parole is turned down, Khodorkovsky will have the right to reapply in six months.

Apart from the men on the roof, campaigners said they saw Wednesday's protest being filmed by another group of men, sitting in a car with tinted windows parked on the square. They said they suspected that the men came from the city's Federal Security Service, whose office is housed in a splendid 19th-century mansion just five minutes' walk from the square.

"It's quite strange that on the very day of our protest, my home telephone number and Internet did not work, and I had problems putting money on my cell phone account," said Savvateyeva, the support group activist.

The FSB's Chita office was not immediately available for comment late Wednesday.

The local head of liberal party Yabloko, Igor Linnik, who attended Wednesday's protest, said Khodorkovsky's jailing had served its purpose of ensuring that the loyalty of the oligarchs to the government.

"But the Chekist way of thinking does not imply any forgiveness. So we will have to see whether logic or emotions will take an upper hand."

Many of the passers-by on Teatralnaya Ploshchad expressed support for Khodorkovsky's release, saying he had served long enough in jail.

"Khodorkovsky deserves parole," said pensioner Lyudmila Loginova, 62, signing the petition. "He's suffered a lot, he must have understood his mistakes."

"Half of Russia doesn't pay taxes, why should only Khodorkovsky be in prison?" asked Alexander Konstantinov, 21, a student at a Chita technical college.

But not everyone agreed.

"A thief has to rot in prison," said a well-dressed elderly woman, who elbowed her way through a small crowd of people talking to campaigners, saying she was late for the theater's performance of Swan Lake. "Such big money can't be earned in an honest way."