Russian Justice, Again

Barring cruel and unusual punishment and double jeopardy, imposing statutes of limitations jury trials before the accused’s peers are basic tenets of the legal systems of democracies. An independent judiciary — uncontrolled by those in government power — has generated such strong adherence in the modern world that even murderous Cambodia’s Pol Pot, or ruthlessly cruel Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe, the Myanmar military junta or Libya’s Mummar Gaddafi have often invoked it. It was not them persecuting their enemies and opposition. It was their judiciary that was handling the crimes.

None of these niceties seem to bother Russia today after nine years of Putinocracy. There is not even a disguised attempt to spray a semblance of perfume at the obvious stench.

On February 16, Russian prosecutors filed new embezzlement and grand theft charges against Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the former head of Russia’s largest oil company, Yukos, already wasting away in a Siberian prison. Khodorkovsky, at one time Russia’s richest and most successful businessman, was arrested in 2003 and sentenced in 2005 to eight years of hard labor on fraud and tax evasion charges. The charges against him were considered by many both inside and outside of Russia a sham. For starters, Yukos alleged tax bill was larger than the entire income of the company.

The Khodorkovsky and Yukos affair more than any other showed the true nature of Vladimir Putin’s regime. The taking over of Yukos was called the “swindle of the year” by none other than Putin’s own economic advisor Andrei Illarionov.

President George W. Bush, mired then in the quagmire of Iraq, and having looked Putin “in the eye” four years earlier kept largely silent. The same went for most European leaders loath to bite the hand that feeds them with energy. That would of course not be the reaction at an earlier era. Russia went on to re-Sovietize its oil and gas industry and in the process became one of the most corrupt countries in the world. In Transparency International’s latest rankings Russia was sandwiched between Indonesia and Nigeria in corruption.

Many suggested that the attack on Khodorkovsky had been motivated by his own political ambitions or that he — a prominent oligarch — got his just comeuppance after the wild days of the Yeltsin privatizations. The reasons are much simpler. In a KGB/FSB infested government any move towards modernity and difference is considered as unforgivable hubris. All must beware that swift and horrible punishment is lurking. There is is no difference between this and the Stalin era’s oppressions implemented by Lavrenty Beria.

But politics and policy aside — and internal Russian shenanigans nonwithstanding — it is the Putinocracy’s indecency towards a man that should bring revolting feelings among all people, irrespective of nationality or ideology.

After a Russian court in August rejected Khodorkovsky’s request for parole, he was supposed to be freed in 2011, following the serving of his entire sentence. But in what can only be described as sadism, rumors about new charges have been circulating in Moscow from the beginning of his arrest. The timing was supposed to coincide exactly before his potential release to affect maximum continuous stay in prison. With the snail-pace moving Russian justice, two years before the would-be release is just about the right time for the desired outcome.  The Prosecutor General’s office did not disappoint his masters.

The indictment alleges that Khodorkovsky schemed with a group of investors at his company Yukos to steal from a Siberian oil company 3.6 billion rubles ($102 million).  The outrageousness of the charge, other than the obvious rationale of the sham proceedings, is that the prosecutor seems not to even know how an integrated oil company works. The alleged victim was a wholly owned subsidiary of Yukos. It would be the same if the headquarters of an American oil company were to be accused of taking the profits of their Texas subsidiary.

Yuri Schmidt, one of Khodorkovsky’s defense lawyers, after looking at the new charges, contained in 4,000 pages said: "There’s nothing new in any of this. From the very first sentence, it appears to be nothing but nonsense."

Except that the charges may result in a man rotting indefinitely and indeterminately in prison in the Russian style of vindictive slow death. It might have been more merciful to have him killed in the first place. But mercy and decency are in very short supply in today’s Russia.