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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Yukos Mom on Hunger Strike

newsru.comSvetlana Bakhmina with her sons
What began as a routine questioning by prosecutors in early December over a six-year-old asset-stripping case has turned into an ordeal for Yukos lawyer Svetlana Bakhmina, 35, who has remained in pretrial detention in a four-woman cell ever since.

On Friday, Bakhmina entered her second week of a hunger strike -- a last-ditch attempt to win the right to speak by telephone with her two young sons.

The case, seen as one of the darkest corners of the authorities' complex legal web against the managers presiding over the remains of the Yukos oil empire, has attracted considerable attention, not least thanks to a broad public relations campaign organized by the company.

International lawyers' organizations, including the Association of the Bar of the City of New York and the Council of the Bars and Law Societies of the European Union, have written to President Vladimir Putin and the Prosecutor General's Office demanding that Bakhmina be released from prison on house arrest.

In a rare front-page editorial Friday, Vedomosti suggested prosecutors were using Stalinist methods in Bakhmina's case, which was being conducted in the "best traditions of Lubyanka in the 1930s" -- a reference to the KGB's dour headquarters in downtown Moscow.

"Do the prosecutors think that Bakhmina's children can also interfere with the investigation, intimidate witnesses or destroy the evidence of their mother's guilt?" the paper wrote.

Bakhmina's ordeal began on Dec. 8 when she was called in for questioning by Moscow prosecutors who claim she played a role in stripping some $650 million in assets from Yukos' Tomskneft subsidiary in 1997. Bakhmina has consistently denied the charges, and her lawyers stress that she was a junior lawyer of 28 at the time, recently returned from maternity leave and with little authority.

Bakhmina's lawyers say their client passed out during her interrogation. After briefly being taken to a hospital, she was moved to an Interior Ministry building where her questioning continued, without her lawyer. At one point during the interrogation, she was allowed to sleep -- watched over by four of her male interviewers. Later she collapsed a second time.

"Her physical state is bad. She only drinks water," said Olga Kozyreva, Bakhmina's lawyer who visited her Thursday at women's prison No. 6 in southern Moscow. "She has gone three months without talking to her children. As a mother this is terribly demeaning," Kozyreva said.

After her arrest, Bakhmina asked investigators to be allowed to make paid telephone calls to her two sons -- Fyodor, 3, and Grigory, 7. Her investigators initially agreed to the request, then swiftly rejected it on the grounds that the paperwork had been wrongly stamped.

Bakhmina's lawyers corrected the document together with prison officials and resubmitted it, but investigators rejected her request on March 3, after which Bakhmina announced her hunger strike.

"She has the right to choose this form of protest, but as far as the decision of the investigators is concerned ... investigators cannot act on a whim, they act in strict accordance with the criminal and procedural code," Viktor Potapov, a spokesman for the Prosecutor General's Office said Friday. "But of course, if those who are detained are not allowed to talk by telephone, this causes certain inconveniences."

Peter Binning, a partner with the Corker Binning law firm who represents Bakhmina outside Russia, noted that his client's arrest had coincided with a period of frantic activity as Yukos' lawyers rushed to put together an anti-crisis plan to stave off seemingly imminent bankruptcy.

Continued pressure on the company and the expanding cases targeting Yukos lawyers and managers have raised the prospect that the company's other units -- Tomskneft and Samaraneftegaz -- could be sold off to Kremlin-friendly companies.

Binning also drew attention to a December report in Kommersant that cited unidentified investigators as saying Bakhmina would be released if Yukos' top in-house lawyer, Dmitry Gololobov, who is wanted in connection with the same asset-stripping case, returns from London where he has been working since fall.

"It appears that the Russian authorities are happy to trade one human being's life for another and are effectively holding Svetlana Bakhmina hostage until her superior in the legal department, Gololobov, returns to Russia," Bakhmina's London-based public relations team said earlier in the week.