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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Alleged Mafia Boss Stands Trial in Switzerland

Amid extraordinary security precautions, a court in the Swiss capital of Geneva on Monday began trying Sergei Mikhailov, the man alleged to be one of Russia's most powerful mafia bosses.

Lawyers representing Mikhailov immediately appealed for an adjournment on the grounds that the outcome of the trial had been prejudiced by the media circus surrounding it, but the request was rejected by presiding judge Antoinette Stadler.

Mikhailov, better known in Russia by his nom de guerre, Mikhas, is standing trial on charges of belonging to an organized crime group and purchasing a villa in Switzerland under a false name.

The stocky, balding Mikhailov, 40, was driven to the courtroom from the Champ Dollon jail in an armored black Mercedes sedan and appeared in court wearing a stylish black suit. An interpreter explained the court's proceedings to him.

He is suspected of being the head of the notorious Solntsevskaya gang - named after the suburb of Solntsevo in southwest Moscow where it originated. Investigators believe the gang ran racketeering operations in Moscow before branching out into drug trafficking, money laundering and prostitution rings in Europe, the United States and Israel.

He is also suspected of links to the Russian mobster Vyacheslav Ivankov, nicknamed Yaponchik, who last year was sentenced to 60 years in jail for extortion by a New York court.

Prosecutors claim that Mikhailov has continued to run his criminal business from the prison cell where he has been since his arrest at Geneva airport in October 1996.

Mikhailov's counsel, meanwhile, insists that he is a legitimate businessman who was framed by his commercial rivals.

With some witnesses in the trial claiming to have received threats, the Swiss authorities are taking unprecedented security measures. Journalists and onlookers going into the court Monday were subjected to body searches and had to pass through airport-style metal detectors.

Prosecutors working on the case are reported to be under police guard, while security has been stepped up outside the Swiss Embassy in Moscow after diplomats received threats.

NTV television reported Monday that as soon as the hearing opened, Mikhailov's defense lawyers appealed for the hearing to be adjourned, claiming that media coverage of the trial prejudiced their client's chances of a fair hearing. They said that the Swiss media had been referring to Mikhailov as though he were already proved guilty and that photographs of him published in the press could only have been taken from his file.

After adjourning for one hour, the six judges turned down the request and ordered the hearing to continue.

"This is nothing other than the rape of the law and the mocking of our client," one of Mikhailov's Swiss attorneys, Pascal Maurer, said outside the courtroom in footage broadcast by NTV television. "This Swiss court is behaving worse than any Soviet court and we intend to appeal to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg."

The court will resume hearing evidence Tuesday. The trial is expected to last some 15 days with up to 80 witnesses from several countries expected to testify and 40 hefty files of prosecution evidence to be examined.

Mikhailov faces up to seven and a half years in prison if found guilty, but getting a conviction will not be easy. Despite the persistent attentions of the Russian police, Mikhailov has only been convicted once, in 1984, of petty insurance scam.

In 1989 he spent 18 months in a Moscow detention center charged with racketeering. But on the eve of the trial, key witnesses changed their testimony and Mikhailov was released.

And despite collaboration with the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation and authorities in Israel, Russia and Belgium, the Swiss prosecutors were forced to drop charges of money-laundering soon after Mikhailov's arrest because of a lack of evidence.