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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Berezovsky Has His First Day in Court

APBoris Berezovsky leaving the Bow Street Magistrates Court in London on Wednesday wearing a mask of President Vladimir Putin.
LONDON -- Controversial powerbroker Boris Berezovsky emerged Wednesday from extradition hearings in London's Bow Street Magistrates Court wearing a satirical mask of Putin in defiance of the regime he claims is seeking to muzzle and even kill him for his opposition stance.

The court agreed to a request to adjourn the hearings made by Berezovsky's defense for more time to put together a case to show the fraud charges forwarded by the Russian authorities against him and his close associate Yuly Dubov are politically motivated. It set the next hearing for May 13. Under British extradition law, the accused cannot be extradited if it can be proven the charges brought are connected to that person's political opinions.

At a news conference following the hearings, Berezovsky exuded bravado, saying the chances of his extradition on charges he defrauded the Samara regional administration and the AvtoVAZ car giant out of 60 billion rubles from January 1994 to December 1995 were "absolutely zero."

"The timing for such an act [forwarding the charges] is of course connected to politics. The timing is connected to the beginning of the run up to the Duma elections this December," he said. "They want to take me out of the parliamentary fight."

The British government made a surprise decision last week to give the green light to the Russian prosecutors' request for extradition proceedings to begin against Berezovsky and Dubov, who are both in self-imposed exile in London, handing the matter over to the courts and setting bail for Berezovsky and Dubov at ?100,000 ($156,000) each.

At the same time, after 18 months in waiting, the home secretary informed Berezovsky in a letter last Friday that his request for political asylum had been turned down because of the extradition charges, his defense lawyer Alun Jones QC told the court. Jones said lawyers would appeal that decision.

Berezovsky has for years been reviled in Russia as a gray cardinal of Boris Yeltsin's Kremlin who specialized in pulling strings for his own personal enrichment to gain him stakes in national airline Aeroflot, oil major Sibneft, and a trading monopoly on AvtoVAZ cars, while his control over ORT television made him a political kingmaker in presidential elections in 1996 and 2000. A litany of allegations that he has been involved in gangland killings, mafia dealings and embezzlement have also long swirled around his rise.

But his appearance in court on Wednesday marked the first time he has ever sat in the dock.

He looked visibly rattled as he and his partner rose to stand before the judge, tensely looking around the court, as five policemen guarded the exit.

But as Jones began to lay out his case for a delay to proceedings due to the possible political motivation for the charges, Berezovsky began to relax.

"The reality of this case is that Mr. Berezovsky is the political enemy of the Russian government," Jones said. "He is known in Russia and abroad as a fierce critic of the military attack on Chechnya ... and as a fierce critic of the growth in the power of the security services.

"Under these circumstances, he lives in fear of assassination by those loyal to the Russian government. [He fears] his life would be in great danger if he returned to Russia," he said.

"The history of this case is simple: It's politically motivated. The policy is, denounce Berezovsky as a criminal now, we'll find a crime later," he said.

Jones laid out the litany of charges that have been brought against Berezovsky in the past before the AvtoVAZ fraud investigations began in August this year. He said allegations initially made in 1997 that Berezovsky embezzled millions of dollars from Aeroflot had been dismissed by a Moscow court. But he said that Putin, on gaining power, had told officials the case would be renewed.

"Nothing has come of it however," he said.

Jones said accusations later forwarded by Russian prosecutors that Berezovsky had helped fund Chechen rebels had not gotten anywhere either.

He said he has asked the Home Office to disclose whether it had received any applications for Berezovsky's extradition on these charges earlier. "The allegations of crime are in relation to theft in '94 and '95," he said. "But it's not a simple as that. Three different groups of allegations have been forwarded at a time that coincides with the rise to power of President Putin and Berezovsky's opposition to the security services."

Berezovsky has been credited with helping get Putin elected. But whatever relationship they had appeared to soon sour after Putin took power and Berezovsky announced his opposition to the strengthening of the Kremlin's grip over politics -- over the Duma, the Federation Council and the media. Berezovsky said that after his ORT slammed Putin's handling of the Kursk disaster in August 2000, he was forced to sell his stake in the channel and then he left for London.

Jones questioned why the charges that Berezovsky had defrauded AvtoVAZ in 1994 and 1995 had not been looked into earlier. "It is extraordinary that it didn't occur to anyone to challenge this immediately," he said.

He said full details of the transaction in question had been disclosed at the time in Samara's regional budget.

In an interview after the hearings, Berezovsky also questioned the validity of the charges. He said he had signed documents from Samara regional Governor Konstantin Titov and AvtoVAZ chairman Viktor Kadannikov saying they did not object to the transaction now under question, which involved a complicated tax offset scheme.

Both Kadannikov and Titov have long been seen as allies of Berezovsky. They were, however, interrogated by prosecutors in September last year as investigations were ramped up.

Berezovsky said the extradition proceedings had backfired if the Kremlin had intended to use them to silence his opposition voice. He said the court hearings had only served to give him a bigger platform for criticizing the Kremlin.

He said he would continue to press for the left and right wings to join in opposition to Putin in time for the Duma elections. Charges were brought against Berezovsky a few weeks after an interview with him was published in the leftist Zavtra newspaper in which he made his first overtures to the Communists.

Dozens of Communists rallied outside the British Embassy in Moscow on Wednesday holding slogans such as "Freedom to Boris" and "The Communist Party Is With You."

Berezovsky repeated he was ready to spend $100 million on the elections.

But even as Berezovsky hatches plans for a political comeback, he will have to inform the police every night of his whereabouts. The court ruled Wednesday that Berezovsky would be allowed to stay at three different addresses, but would have to inform the police every time he moved. He was told he would have to hand over his passport.

Lord Tim Bell, a former adviser to British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who is acting as a guarantor that Berezovsky will show up to the extradition hearings, again confirmed he would stump up half the bail money.

Bell said in an interview that it seemed the British government was trying to avoid having to make a politically loaded decision on Berezovsky's fate by leaving it to the court to decide whether the charges are politically motivated. Relations between Russia and Britain have been strained over Iraq.

Jones said during the hearings that the British secretary of state had written in a letter authorizing the extradition case to go to the courts that the issue of whether the charges were politically motivated were extremely complex and that the court system was in a better position to judge.

State-owned television channels Channel One and Rossia downplayed Wednesday's hearing, with newscasters reading brief reports. NTV and TVS had longer reports and aired footage of Berezovsky outside the court.