A court Tuesday ordered tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky to stand trial with another billionaire shareholder in the beleaguered oil company Yukos in what is likely to be one of the biggest and most politically charged cases in post-Soviet Russia.
Khodorkovsky, the former chief of Yukos, and Platon Lebedev face charges of tax evasion, embezzlement and large-scale fraud committed by an organized criminal group.
The Meshchansky district court approved a defense request to combine their cases, and scheduled their first joint hearing for June 16, defense lawyer Genrikh Padva said. Prosecutors supported the request, he said.
“The accusations against them are practically one and the same, therefore it is logical that they be examined jointly,” said defense lawyer Yuri Schmidt. “I think the court made a fair and reasonable decision.”
Lebedev’s arrest in July was the first in the Yukos investigation.
President Vladimir Putin has portrayed the inquiry as part of an effort by law enforcement authorities to tackle economic crime and corruption. But the targeting of Khodorkovsky, Russia’s richest man, just as he was growing more politically active in opposition to Putin, has led many to suggest that the Kremlin wants to sideline a potential challenger.
Foreign investors and Russia’s other multimillionaires are also watching nervously amid fears the investigation is an attempt by the government to punish and take back some of the natural resources and enterprises sold off in dubious privatization deals after the breakup of the Soviet Union.
Khodorkovsky’s parents and a handful of supporters crowded the corridor outside the courtroom where the closed hearing was held. Khodorkovsky’s mother, Marina, said her 40-year-old son did “everything by the book.”
“I know my son. He is a very law-abiding man, and he wouldn’t violate the law,” she said, wearing a scarf in Yukos’ green and yellow colors. Her husband, Boris, proudly showed off photographs from a school for disadvantaged children that his son funds.
As Khodorkovsky was led in, his mother stood on a bench and craned her neck above camouflage-clad guards and yelled his nickname, “Misha!”
After the hearing, Boris Khodorkovsky peered through a crack in a metal gate topped with barbed wire outside the courthouse, trying to catch a glimpse of his son.
The decision to combine Khodorkovsky’s and Lebedev’s cases will create a complex trial; Khodorkovsky’s case files number 227 volumes, while Lebedev’s top 160.