Prosecutors file new charges against jailed Russian oil tycoon

Prosecutors filed new money-laundering charges Monday against jailed Russian oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky and his business partner, opening a new front in the Russian authorities' campaign against the nation's one-time richest man.

Khodorkovsky's lawyer Yuri Schmidt told The Associated Press that prosecutors in the Siberian city of Chita had indicted his client on charges of laundering more than US$20 billion (Ђ15 billion) in illegal oil revenues.

Schmidt said the charges were "not simply absurd they are insane. ... Whoever wrote them was either mad or drunk."

The Interfax and ITAR-Tass news agencies earlier cited a lawyer for Khodorkovsky's business partner Platon Lebedev as saying that prosecutors had charged his client on the same count. Konstantin Rivkin said his client insisted on his innocence.

Khodorkovsky, founder of the now-bankrupt oil giant OAO Yukos, has been serving an eight-year sentence in a Siberian prison camp after being convicted in 2004 on fraud and tax evasion charges following a politically charged trial. Lebedev also is serving eight years on these charges.

He and Lebedev were moved in December to a detention center in Chita for questioning, and brought to the regional prosecutor's office on Monday for their formal indictment amid tight security measures.

Rivkin said that Lebedev also had been charged with embezzlement.

The two men are accused of defrauding Yukos through trading schemes that allowed its owners to skim off profits and subsequently laundering the illegal funds through Khodorkovsky's Open Russia foundation.

Khodorkovsky, who was one of Russia's most powerful men after building up Yukos into the country's top oil producer, was detained at gunpoint in October 2003.

Prior to his arrest and the parallel tax probe that saw most of his oil empire transferred to a state company, Khodorkovsky was estimated by Forbes magazine to have a fortune worth US$15 billion (EUR 11.5 billion).

The case was widely seen as a Kremlin-driven vendetta after Khodorkovsky funded opposition parties, as well as a means for the state to regain control of a chunk of the strategically important oil sector.

Khodorkovsky could face up to 15 years for money laundering. Kremlin critics suggested the new charges were aimed at ensuring he remains in prison and presents no political threat, reports AP.

Prison terms on separate charges are not usually served consecutively in Russia; convicts are jailed for the longest sentence.

On Sunday, police briefly detained lawyers for Khodorkovsky and Lebedev, in what his legal team decried as the latest example of official harassment.

Five lawyers acting for both men were detained by police at Moscow's Domodedovo airport in the evening as they were waiting to register for a flight to Chita, Schmidt said.

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