Jailed Yukos oil tycoon could qualify for presidential pardon, lawyer says

The chief lawyer for jailed Russian oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky said Friday that his client could be pardoned under a traditional May 9 presidential amnesty to coincide with the celebrations marking the end of World War II.

Genrikh Padva, the head of Khodorkovsky's defense team, voiced the hope in the wake of this weeks' request by prosecutors that Khodorkovsky and his business partner Platon Lebedev be sentenced to 10 years in prison for embezzlement, fraud, tax evasion and other charges related to the Yukos oil company.

The sentencing request is the final chapter in the nine-month criminal trial against Khodorkovsky, which has been widely seen as a Kremlin response to Khodorkovsky's funding opposition political parties in the run-up to 2003 parliamentary elections. Khodorkovsky - once one of Russia's wealthiest men - has been jailed since October 2003.

A separate legal assault against Yukos itself has resulted in Russia's No.1 crude producer being dismantled and partly renationalized to pay off a disputed US$28 billion (€21.6 billion) tax bill.

Khodorkovsky's legal team has said the prosecutors' request this week was no surprise and they maintain that the final verdict, expected in May, will be decided not by the court but by the Kremlin.

For that reason, Padva said President Vladimir Putin might pardon Khodorkovsky as part of the May 9th Victory Day celebrations.

"Theoretically, of course, it is possible if it (the amnesty) is broad enough and if there are no limitations specifically concerning them," Padva said in televised comments outside the courthouse.

The Kremlin's press office declined to comment, directing questions to the Prosecutor General's Office, which is responsible for implementing presidential pardons. A spokeswoman there refused to comment, saying that Russia's lower house of parliament was charged with approving pardons. The Duma press office did not answer phones Friday afternoon.

Investors have been spooked by the legal assault against Yukos and its founder. U.S. holders of Yukos stock are estimated to have lost some US$6 billion (€4.63 billion) as the company's value fell by 95 percent. Capital flight from Russia more than tripled to US$7.9 billion (€6.09 billion) last year, according to official statistics _ what analysts call a panicked response to the assault against Yukos.

Christopher Granville, head of research at the Moscow-based United Financial Group investment bank, said pardoning Khodorkovsky at a time when dozens of world leaders will be in Moscow attending the 60th anniversary war celebrations would be a public relations coup.

"Instead of a punitive approach to Khodorkovsky I think it would be perfectly realistic to have him a convicted felon, but have him on the street," he said.

"Putin has achieved his goals: Khodorkovsky no longer has the means to try and privatize the state again," Granville said.

Putin has been stepping up efforts to regain investor confidence. Last week, he instructed his government to streamline muddled tax legislation and draft a moratorium on investigations into Russia's shady privatizations.

The prospect of more investigations similar to the Yukos case has been hanging over virtually all big Russian industrial groups, which snapped up industrial assets at cut-rate prices in deals in the early 1990s.

ALEX NICHOLSON, Associated Press Writer

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