Khodorkovsky's Parole Request Denied

MTKhodorkovsky's lawyers Klyuvgant and Natalya Terekhova holding the verdict.
CHITA -- A court in Chita on Friday turned down a parole request from Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the former boss of oil giant Yukos who is serving an eight-year sentence in the east Siberian city for fraud and tax evasion.

The ex-tycoon's lawyers said the decision by the Ingodinsky District Court was based on falsified evidence and provided "a shining example of the legal nihilism that President Dmitry Medvedev has himself criticized."

Many awaited the ruling on the application from Khodorkovsky, once the country's richest man with an estimated fortune of $15 billion, as a litmus test for the legal system under Medvedev.

Khodorkovsky reacted only with a grim smile toward his lawyers as the decision was read.

"Our justice system is not being reformed very quickly, and I knew this from the very beginning," Khodorkovsky said to journalists from behind the bars as he was rushed out of the prisoners' cage in handcuffs by guards after judge Igor Falileyev handed down the verdict Friday.

In a bizarre twist to the announcement, at 11:24 a.m. Interfax erroneously reported that Khodorkovsky's request had been granted, fueling a 1.6 percent jump in the market -- a rise of $12 billion in real terms -- on a volume of 3 billion rubles ($125.5 million) over the next 10 minutes. Interfax posted a correction at 11:31 p.m., and the index surrendered about two-thirds of the gain in the following 10 minutes.

In his ruling, Falileyev said one of the reasons for denying the parole request was that Khodorkovsky had failed to cooperate in a prison occupational training program.

"Since prisoner Khodorkovsky showed no desire to take part in the professional educational program offered him in detention ... he does not deserve conditional early release," Falileyev said. Khodorkovsky was offered training as a tailor, but chose instead to work packaging clothing, said prosecutor Alexei Fyodorov. In his testimony Friday, Khodorkovsky said he had never refused the assignment.

"The law says that prison authorities have to take prisoners' education and experience into consideration when choosing work for them," said Vadim Klyuvgant, one of Khodorkovsky's lawyers. "Khodorkovsky may not have shown any personal interest in the tailoring work, but he didn't resist either."

Prosecutors had also requested that Khodorkovsky's application be denied because he had yet to serve a penalty for allegedly disobeying an order to keep his hands behind his back as he walked from an exercise yard to his cell in October. Igor Gnezdilov, a witness to the incident who has since been granted parole, testified Thursday that Khodorkovsky had not broken any rules.

Khodorkovsky's lawyers questioned the authenticity of footage of the incident submitted by prosecutor's Friday, saying the absence of sound on the recording made it impossible to determine whether such an order had been given. They also pointed out that the men in the video file were barely recognizable, the video wasn't from the time and location cited in the report of the infraction, and the disc submitted could easily have been tampered with, as it had not been sealed.

Earlier in the day, Fyodorov told the court that Khodorkovsky had received no commendations during his imprisonment, had not repented for his crimes, displayed "a steady trend toward committing new crimes" and was still facing trial on additional charges. He said that if he was released, Khodorkovsky could interfere with the investigation into outstanding charges and try to hide ill-gotten gains.

Khodorkovsky and business partner Platon Lebedev are awaiting trial on charges of embezzling $21 billion and of money laundering. Granting the parole request would, therefore, not have meant an immediate release, as conviction on the new charges could bring a sentence of a further 22 1/2 years in prison.

Klyuvgant told journalists that the verdict came as no surprise and that the legal team would appeal the ruling.

"The Ingodinsky court verdict has nothing to do with the law and justice," Klyuvgant said. " Khodorkovsky's enemies -- those who organized his arrest back in 2003 -- are very much afraid he might be freed. They are using any means to keep him behind bars, including discrediting presidential power and judicial reforms."

Dmitry Zelinsky, managing partner at Dia Law International, said the main legal reason for refusing Khodorkovsky parole was the fact that he continues to deny his guilt.

"In up to 95 percent of successful Russian parole cases, the criminal admits his guilt," Zelinsky said. "According to recent changes to the law, an admission of guilt by the prisoner is not necessary, but it remains an important factor in granting parole."

Zelinsky said prison infractions, even those that had been overturned, also influenced the decision.

"Formally, if Khodorkovsky has been penalized at least twice, it is considered a standard violation of prison discipline."

Dmitry Oreshkin, an independent political analyst, said there were no legal grounds for the court's decision.

"The verdict is absolutely politically motivated," Oreshkin said. "It is very clear to me that the verdict depended on a call from Moscow. Decisions are the language of power -- if Khodorkovsky had been granted parole, in the logic of Igor Sechin and Vladimir Putin, it would have been a sign of Kremlin weakness."

"The parole refusal is a sign of a continuation of the trends in Putin's presidency," Oreshkin said. "It is based on showing an example for the others to fear."

But Oreshkin said the Kremlin could ill afford such a tough policy in times of financial crisis.

"What could be overcome by the country's economy five years ago, when Khodorkovsky was arrested, will not go as smoothly now," he said. "And the people up there can't help but understand this at a certain point."

Khodorkovsky's mother, meanwhile, was trying to remain optimistic.

"I hoped that common sense would gain the upper hand, but it turned out as usual," Marina Khodorkovskaya said tearfully as she left the courtroom Friday. "But I want to believe it will be better one day."