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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Yukos Trial Postponed as Suspect Disappears

An associate of jailed Yukos oil chief Mikhail Khodorkovsky has escaped armed guard in the midst of a money-laundering trial involving the bankrupt oil company, Prosecutor General Yury Chaika said Tuesday.

Antonio Valdes Garcia, a Russian-born Spanish national, stands accused of helping embezzle and launder $13 billion in oil revenues during his tenure as head of Yukos trading company Fargoil.

The trial was postponed until Jan. 23.

Valdes Garcia's lawyers said his whereabouts were unknown. Valdes Garcia is also thought to have tried to escape shortly after his arrest in 2005.

Chaika also said Tuesday that Alexei Golubovich, a former Khodorkovsky ally who fled Russia in 2003 as the state unfurled its attack on Yukos, had returned to Russia.

Yukos spokespeople and a lawyer for Platon Lebedev, chairman of Khodorkovsky's Menatep holding, said they had long expected Golubovich to come back and testify in the case against the former Yukos shareholders.

The disappearance of Valdes Garcia and the return of Golubovich came as Chaika said he would bring new charges of money laundering and embezzlement against Khodorkovsky and Lebedev, who are already serving eight-year sentences on fraud and tax-evasion charges. The two men were transferred to a pretrial detention facility in the regional Siberian capital of Chita last month.

Khodorkovsky has dismissed the charges against him as politically motivated. The crackdown on Yukos was widely seen as a means of punishing Khodorkovsky -- thought to be close to selling part of Yukos to a U.S. oil major -- for challenging the power of President Vladimir Putin.

Prosecutors claim that between 2000 and 2003, Yukos officials illegally transferred $13 billion in crude oil sales out of the country through Fargoil, a wholly owned Yukos subsidiary run by Valdes Garcia at the time. Transfers were also made through Ratibor, another Yukos trading arm, prosecutors claimed. Both Fargoil and Ratibor were registered in tax havens.

Valdes Garcia, former Ratibor president Vladimir Malakhovsky and Vladimir Pereverzin, the former deputy head of Yukos' foreign debt directorate, were due to appear in Moscow's Basmanny District Court on Tuesday to be sentenced in the money-laundering case. Valdes Garcia's disappearance prompted court officials to postpone the hearing until Jan. 23.

Prosecutors have asked the court to sentence each of the three men to 11 years in prison, Kommersant reported Tuesday.

Tim Osborne, director of Yukos majority shareholder GML, formerly known as Group Menatep, and Claire Davidson, a spokeswoman for Yukos' London-based managers, on Tuesday dismissed the charges as groundless.

"There is no case to answer," Davidson said by telephone from London, adding that the companies were "genuine and legitimate" Yukos subsidiaries.

Spokespeople for the prosecutor's office declined to provide details of Valdes Garcia's escape. Chaika would only tell journalists that the former Yukos official was "on the run and on our wanted list."

The police officers assigned to guard Valdes Garcia would be prosecuted, he added.

Valdes Garcia, 32, was arrested in June 2005 upon his arrival at a Moscow airport. He had voluntarily returned to Russia from Madrid to give evidence in the money-laundering investigation, believing he would gain protection from prosecution in exchange for cooperating, associates said at the time.

His whereabouts remained unknown to the public until September 2005, when he was discovered to be in a hospital recovering from head and leg injuries sustained after jumping out of a window in a failed escape attempt. Sources at the time speculated that some of his bruises appeared inconsistent with a simple fall from a window.

Tatyana Nozhkina, a lawyer for Valdes Garcia, on Tuesday declined to comment on her client's whereabouts or when she had last seen him. A second lawyer representing him, Artur Vorobyov, also failed to provide information after summoning a reporter to his central Moscow offices.

An official at the Spanish Embassy who requested anonymity said the embassy had been trying for months to establish contact with Valdes Garcia, a dual Spanish-Russian citizen, but authorities had blocked their attempts.

Anton Drel, a lawyer for Lebedev and Khodorkovsky, declined to comment on Valdes Garcia's disappearance when reached by telephone in Chita, where he is visiting with the jailed men.

Yevgeny Baru, a lawyer for Lebedev, said: "It's hard to talk about Valdes Garcia, because everything about him raises questions. Even at the very beginning, when he came back to Russia, there were very strange occurrences."

"His relation to the case against Lebedev is simply a guess now," he added. "And it's difficult to say if he even understood what role he would have in the case."

Prosecutors had requested that Valdes Garcia undergo psychiatric examination amid concern that he was "not fully conscious of what was occurring in the trial," Kommersant quoted prosecutor Irina Shlyayeva as saying.

Meanwhile, prosecutor's office spokeswoman Diana Karpetyan declined to provide details about the return of Golubovich, who headed Yukos' strategic planning department until 2000.

Prosecutors had been seeking his extradition first from Britain, where he had been based since leaving Russia, and then from Italy, where he was arrested while on vacation last May. A spokeswoman for the prosecutor's office said at the time that Golubovich was wanted on charges of participating in an organized criminal group that had committed large-scale fraud.

Golubovich was placed on Interpol's wanted list in 2005.

Karpetyan declined to say whether Golubovich, 41, had been detained. Golubovich could not be reached for comment.

Golubovich, a close ally of Khodorkovsky's since the mid-1980s, fell out with his Yukos partners in 2000 and left the company to run Russkiye Investory, a brokerage firm.

"We knew already last summer that Golubovich would cooperate with prosecutors," said Baru, Lebedev's lawyer. "I understand this cooperation has now begun."

He said he expected Golubovich to testify against his client.

Lebedev was transferred in December from a prison in the Yamal-Nenets autonomous district to the detention center in Chita, some 5,000 kilometers from Moscow. Khodorkovsky was transferred to Chita from a prison camp in the region as prosecutors prepared the new case.

If they are found guilty, Lebedev and Khodorkovsky could each face a further 15 years in prison.

Chaika did not say when he planned to bring the new charges against Khodorkovsky and Lebedev officially.

In a separate development, prosecutors plan to ask British police to check their suspicions that Yury Golubev, a co-founder of Yukos, was killed in London last week, news agencies reported Monday. British police say Golubev, 64, died of natural causes.

Max Delany contributed to this report.