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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

From Legal Eagle to Dying in a Cage

APAleksanyan, once Yukos' top lawyer and vice president, attending a hearing in Moscow's Simonovsky District Court.
A Harvard-trained lawyer, Vasily Aleksanyan was once a high roller who drove around Moscow in a Mercedes-Benz luxury SUV.

Now he spends his days in the Matrosskaya Tishina detention facility, and doctors say he "could die any day," according to one of his lawyers.

Aleksanyan was hunched over and visibly exhausted as he sat in the defendant's cage at Simonovsky District Court this week. His appearance was not surprising for a man who has been diagnosed with AIDS and cancer, and who had been held in jail for nearly two years before his trial on charges of embezzlement and tax evasion began Tuesday.

Following an outcry from activists and repeated requests from the European Court of Human Rights, Aleksanyan's trial was put on hold Wednesday -- but judges sent the former Yukos vice president back to his prison hospital, overruling objections from his defense team and officials at the prison itself.

It was the latest blow to a man whose career has plummeted from spectacular heights.

Friends and colleagues describe Aleksanyan, 36, as having a sharp legal mind, a deep sense of loyalty and a willingness to take big risks when circumstances demanded it.

Aleksanyan was born into a highly educated Moscow family in 1971. His father, a physicist, was an ethnic Armenian who had lived in Moscow since the 1950s, while his mother was Russian. They now live in southwest Moscow.

Anton Drel, a longtime friend and colleague, described Aleksanyan's family as "intellectual" and said his father had spent his life preoccupied with science.

"I lost my own father when I was young, and I can say that many people would be lucky to have such a father," said Drel, who is best known as a lawyer for jailed oil billionaire Mikhail Khodorkovsky.

Aleksanyan also has two brothers. The elder works for Troika Dialog investment bank, while the younger works for the Reuters news agency.

Aleksanyan wrapped up his education quickly, graduating from the law department of Moscow State University in 1993 and going on to Harvard Law School for an LL.M. degree, a one-year program popular with international students. When he left Harvard in 1995, he was only 25.

While still a student at Moscow State University, Aleksanyan proved his courage and his sharp negotiation skills in a 1992 incident remembered by another longtime friend and colleague, U.S. citizen David Godfrey, who met Aleksanyan while visiting Moscow on a student exchange program.

Godfrey, Aleksanyan and several other people were drinking in the bar of the Hotel Sport in southern Moscow when a few thuggish-looking Chechens came up to them and started hitting on the girls in the group, said Godfrey, a lawyer who heads Yukos Finance, a Dutch subsidiary of the oil company.

Aleksanyan began an "animated negotiation" with the Chechens, affecting a Caucasus accent and stressing their shared roots to get on their good side, Godfrey said.

The girls were spirited away to safer territory, and ultimately no bar fight broke out. "It was a highly impressive and very dangerous and bold attempt to protect people he barely knew at all," Godfrey said by telephone from Hawaii.

Godfrey has lived outside Russia ever since coming under investigation by the Prosecutor General's Office, which accuses him and three other foreign Yukos managers of siphoning $10 billion of Yukos assets out of the country via a Dutch-based foundation. The managers deny wrongdoing.

After graduating from Harvard, Aleksanyan returned to Russia and worked briefly at SUN Group, an international investment company.

In 1996, he left SUN and signed on with the rapidly growing business empire of Khodorkovsky, the powerful oligarch who had made a fortune in controversial privatization deals. Aleksanyan would head Yukos' legal department until 2003.

Aleksanyan again showed his negotiation skills at his job interview, Godfrey and another former Yukos colleague said.

When Khodorkovsky offered Aleksanyan the job, the lawyer countered with a list of demands. The most important one was direct access to Khodorkovsky -- something Aleksanyan felt he needed in order to do the job.

"Since Yukos was a huge company and he was quite young, he understood perfectly well that he would be surrounded by many people with their own interests," the colleague said.

"To create a transparent company, he knew he needed access to its No. 1 official," he said. The colleague, a longtime friend, asked to remain anonymous because he did not want to get involved with the publicity surrounding Aleksanyan's trial.

Fyodor Savintsev / Itar-Tass
Aleksanyan, right, and Drel leaving a Khodorkovsky court hearing in 2004.
Both Godfrey and the colleague described Aleksanyan as a key player in the push to transform Yukos into a transparent company and a standard-bearer for Western business values in Russia.

Of course, being the top lawyer at Russia's biggest oil company was also highly lucrative.

From 1998 to 2004, Aleksanyan had six cars registered in his name: a Mercedes-Benz G-500 sport utility vehicle, a Porsche 911 sports car and an Audi A8 sedan, as well as a BMW X5, a Mitsubishi Pajero and another Mercedes of unclear model, according to an online Moscow traffic police database.

The lawyer was also courted by another oligarch, Roman Abramovich, then-head of the Sibneft oil company, Godfrey and the colleague said.

When Abramovich and Aleksanyan had a face-to-face meeting in the late 1990s, the billionaire showed the lawyer a suitcase containing $1 million in cash and told him that it would be his signing bonus if he agreed to join Abramovich's team that very day, Godfrey and the colleague said, recounting a story that they had heard from Aleksanyan himself. Aleksanyan turned down the offer.

A spokesman for Abramovich did not immediately respond to an e-mailed request for comment.

In 2003, the year the state began its legal assault on Yukos, Aleksanyan formally stepped down from his position as the head of Yukos' legal department but continued to work as a personal lawyer for Khodorkovsky and fellow Yukos shareholder Platon Lebedev.

Things went rapidly downhill for Yukos. Over the next few years, Khodorkovsky was sentenced to nine years in prison on charges relating to an early-1990s privatization deal. The company was hit with massive claims for back taxes and filed for bankruptcy. Its choicest assets were snapped up by Rosneft, the state-owned oil company.

By early 2006, Yukos CEO Steven Theede was in London avoiding a Russian criminal investigation and complaining that the remains of the company in Moscow were answering to Rosneft rather than to him.

In a risky gambit, Aleksanyan agreed to return to Yukos as an executive vice president and deal with its court-appointed bankruptcy manager, Eduard Rebgun.

Until then, Aleksanyan had not been caught up in any of the numerous investigations into senior Yukos officials. His appointment in March 2006 changed everything.

For two weeks, Aleksanyan was repeatedly called in for questioning by the Prosecutor General's Office, and he was continuously followed by the same four cars, he said in an interview with Kommersant published in April 2006.

He claimed that prosecutors were pressuring him to quit. "After I said I would not leave Yukos, they told me with a smile that it was the first time they had seen a person voluntarily asking to go to jail," he said.

Aleksanyan was arrested April 6, 2006, on charges of embezzlement and tax evasion, and he has been in detention ever since.

When asked why Aleksanyan stayed at Yukos and did not flee Russia like many other company officials, his friends offered several explanations, including his tough character and an ironclad conviction that the law would back him up.

"He has a rather strong character. ... He is not afraid of anything," the colleague said. "And he did not feel any sense of guilt."

Godfrey noted that Aleksanyan had stood to benefit if the gambit paid off. "He's not stupid," the American said. "He's a risk-taker, but he's not stupid."

A few months after his detention, Aleksanyan learned he was HIV-positive. He also began to lose eyesight in his one good eye. The other eye had been blind since a childhood accident.

Aleksanyan and his lawyers claim that the authorities used his illness as a bargaining chip, threatening to withhold treatment unless he agreed to testify against Khodorkovsky and Lebedev.

"He's a very principled person, and he's taken the position from the start that he's not going to give false testimony against other people," said Drew Holiner, Aleksanyan's representative at the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.

Investigators deny any unlawful treatment of Aleksanyan.

His health deteriorated to the point where he had full-blown AIDS and other related diseases, including terminal lymphoma and possibly tuberculosis, Holiner said. He added that Aleksanyan may have contracted tuberculosis after being put in a crowded holding cell with other inmates who had the disease.

Last November, Aleksanyan's defense team got the Strasbourg court to send Russia a request asking for Aleksanyan to be transferred to a specialized AIDS hospital. Since then, the request has been sent three more times, but it has yet to be carried out, which puts Russia in violation of the European Convention of Human Rights, Holiner said.

"I'm frankly amazed that he's survived this long," Holiner said.

Aleksanyan's AIDS became public knowledge last month after Prosecutor Vladimir Khomutovsky revealed it in a Supreme Court hearing. Until then, statements from Aleksanyan and his lawyers had referred to grave health problems but had refrained from specifics.

With his plight now a public spectacle, Aleksanyan has won a number of supporters, including nine human rights activists who went on a hunger strike this week to protest his treatment. "The Russian government should be ashamed," Alexei Davidov, one of the hunger strikers, said outside the courtroom Tuesday. "I don't want to be part of this lawlessness."

Not everyone has been sympathetic. A number of visitors to a LiveJournal blog site said Aleksanyan's sufferings were a just reward for helping Khodorkovsky acquire billions of dollars worth of assets in the 1990s.

After one visitor said it was "subhuman" to laugh at the terminally ill, another one retorted: "People who are making their fortunes by looting natural resources are also subhuman. But if you steal, you should be prepared that sooner or later they'll bust you."

Aleksanyan himself seems focused on other things. Speaking to reporters in recent days, he has often turned from criticism of the Russian court system to heartfelt discourses about faith.

"I can only put my hopes in God," Aleksanyan said in his defendant's cage on Wednesday. "Except for God, nobody can help me now. Do you know what it says in the Old Testament? Put not your trust in princes."

Staff Writer Svetlana Osadchuk contributed to this report.