Crime and Excessive Punishment: a day at the Khodorkovsky trial

Jailed Russian oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky...

Image by AFP/Getty Images via Daylife

On Tuesday, I spent the day at a tiny regional courthouse in Moscow where I watched defrocked oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky speak in his own defense for the first time. Here’s the write up, from The New Republic:

Mikhail Khodorkovsky, once Russia’s richest man, has been in court for so long that only the hardy, like the wall-eyed man haunting the courthouse in a Che Guevara-style Khodorkovsky t-shirt and the “Free Khodorkovsky” plastic shopping bag, have dared to follow his case. “I’ve spent seven years this way,” says Marina Khodorkovsky, the ex-tycoon’s mother, a bright-eyed former metals engineer. First, there was the year and a half of legal proceedings after her son’s dramatic October 2003 arrest, when special forces stormed his private jet in Siberia. That culminated in a 600-something-page guilty verdict that took the judge fifteen days to read aloud from the bench. Khodorkovsky was then sentenced to a nine year lockup and taken to a Siberian prison, where he was attacked in his sleep for allegedly sexually harassing his cellmate. Then, as talk started to turn to his possible parole and even release in the fall of 2011, the state Prosecutor General slapped Khodorkovsky with charges of stealing 350 million tons of oil and more charges of money laundering and embezzlement, these carrying a sentence of over 20 years.

The moon-faced, salt-haired 46-year-old—Russia’s most famous political prisoner—has lived through a tectonic reversal of fortune. Once a reviled robber baron who made billions in the banking and energy sectors during the lawless ’90s and who went to jail for only partly political reasons, Khodorkovsky has become a martyr and a fundamental pillar of the liberal anti-Putin establishment: the very people who once hated him.

Monday, after prosecutors finished the year-long process of reading their indictment into the record and trotting out ambivalent witnesses, Khodorkovsky was finally allowed to speak in his own defense. The courtroom stirred. It was stuffed beyond capacity, which the Kalashnikov-toting special forces made sure to reduce. People were hanging off of bench corners and sitting in each other’s laps. (A colleague joked that he was “sitting in a fat man.”) It was an older crowd of family and supporters from the Russian opposition. In the best of Russian traditions, some of them brought flowers for the defense team. Outside, the overflow grandmothers kept out of the courtroom soon began to yell at the guards that the simulcast in the simulcast room wasn’t working. A handful of Khodorkovsky lawyers and public relations specialists flitted about the courthouse, which looks like a dilapidated Stalin-era schoolhouse full of peeling ochre linoleum.

Read the rest here.


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