Ex-Yukos CEO Asking For Parole

Staff Writers

Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the jailed former chief of Yukos, plans to request parole in coming days, a source close to the case said Tuesday.

Lawyers for Khodorkovsky declined to confirm his plans but called a rare news conference for Wednesday afternoon entitled, "Are we witnessing the end to legal nihilism?"

Khodorkovsky, who is serving an eight-year sentence in a Siberian prison on charges of fraud and tax evasion, has become a symbol of the country's politicized legal system.

President Dmitry Medvedev, a lawyer by training, has called for a crackdown on corruption and a strengthening of the rule of law to combat what he has termed "legal nihilism."

Speculation has swirled since Medvedev's election in March that Khodorkovsky could be released as a way of bringing closure to the case. Since his imprisonment in October 2003, Khodorkovsky has gone from the country's richest tycoon to its most well-known prisoner.

Yet the levying of fresh charges -- in February 2007 and again earlier this month -- have cast doubt on the chances of any attempt at parole.

Khodorkovsky became eligible for parole in October 2007, after serving half his sentence on charges that he has called politically motivated. He has repeatedly accused Rosneft chairman Igor Sechin, who was appointed a deputy prime minister in May, of orchestrating the campaign against him. The bulk of Yukos' assets went to Rosneft in a series of forced bankruptcy auctions, building it into the country's largest oil firm.

Prosecutors brought multibillion-dollar money-laundering and embezzlement charges against Khodorkovsky and his business partner Platon Lebedev in February 2007, prompting speculation that authorities were seeking to keep the two men in jail indefinitely.

Prosecutors tweaked the charges slightly earlier this month. Khodorkovsky and Lebedev each face up to 15 more years in prison if they are found guilty of embezzling nearly 350 million tons of oil and of laundering over $25 billion.

The elaboration of those charges came as national media began speculating that lawmakers had Khodorkovsky in mind when they submitted a bill to the State Duma that would boost the amount of pretrial detention that could be counted toward a served sentence.

The bill could see Khodorkovsky freed next year, national media said at the time.

Khodorkovsky's London-based lawyer Robert Amsterdam declined to confirm or deny statements he made in an interview Tuesday in German newspaper Suddeutsche Zeitung, in which he said Khodorkovsky had asked his lawyers to go ahead with the parole request.

He referred all questions to Khodorkovsky's Russian lawyers, who declined to comment ahead of Wednesday's news conference.

Medvedev and his predecessor, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, have said Khodorkovsky could ask for a presidential pardon. Yet people close to the jailed oligarch say that is unlikely, as it would entail an admission of guilt.

In addition to the fresh charges, Khodorkovsky has already faced other obstacles to parole.

Ten days before he became eligible to ask for parole, another inmate in the Chita prison where Khodorkovsky is being held filed a complaint, accusing him of violating prison regulations, Kommersant reported.

Igor Gnezdilov, a car thief who spent almost a year as Khodorkovsky's cellmate in 2007, told Kommersant last month that he was forced to file the complaint because he desperately needed to get an early parole himself to save his son from being sent to an orphanage.

According to prison regulations, inmates are obliged to keep their hands behind their backs as they are escorted outside their cells. The rule was not strictly enforced in the Chita prison, and inmates sometimes walked with their arms swinging freely, Gnezdilov said.

After a daily walk in the prison yard on Oct. 15, 2007, Gnezdilov was called in by the prison administration. A prison official demanded that he write a statement saying Khodorkovsky had been walking down the prison corridor without his hands held behind his back.

Initially, Gnezdilov refused to comply, he said.

"A tiny violation on the eve of the middle of the prison term -- and an inmate can forget about being granted an early parole," he said, Kommersant reported.

But a prison official told him that if he refused to cooperate, he would not be granted an early parole himself. Gnezdilov ultimately bent under the pressure.

The same night, Gnezdilov said, he told Khodorkovsky in their cell of what he had done. The former Yukos owner told Gnezdilov that he understood his situation and forgave him, he said.

Khodorkovsky received an official reprimand from the prison administration, and Gnezdilov was released in January 2008.