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Rough Justice: Will Khodorkovsky Face Trial Again?

Photo Gallery: Russia May Be Preparing New Khodorkovsky Trial Photos
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Putin's arch-enemy Mikhail Khodorkovsky is due to be released in 2014, but justice officials seem to be preparing the next case against him. Investigators have also set their sights on a German legal expert who criticized the last verdict as "deeply unjust."

On Sept. 30 at 11:05 a.m., Lufthansa flight LH 2996 left Hamburg bound for Vnukovo Airport in southwest Moscow. Otto Luchterhandt, a law professor from Lüneburg in northern Germany, had booked seats on the flight for himself, his wife, his son and his daughter-in-law. When the flight to the Russian capital took off, Luchterhandt's family was on board but his seat remained empty. At the last minute, after receiving a warning from people close to the German government, the professor decided not to board the flight.

The reason for the warning was a letter from the Investigative Committee of the Russian Federation "to the relevant authorities of the Federal Republic of Germany." The committee, the most important instrument of the Russian prosecutor general, is responsible for "serious crimes." It reports directly to the president and is headed by a former classmate of Vladimir Putin. In the letter, the Russians asked for permission to question Luchterhandt, born in Celle near the northern German city of Hanover in 1943, in criminal case No. 18/41-03, "which is the reason for this request for mutual assistance."

Case No. 18/41-03 is the case against the former head of the Russian oil company Yukos, Mikhail Khodorkovsky. In two trials, the Russian state sentenced him to almost 11 years in prison, and he is due to be released next August. But there are growing doubts that he will be set free. And if Luchterhandt gets involved in the case, he could quickly find himself in a Russian prison as well.

Is a New Khordokovsky Trial Being Prepared?

The Khodorkovsky case was never a purely legal matter. Prior to his arrest the oligarch, one of Putin's harshest critics, financed opposition parties and publicly accused Putin's closest associates of corruption. German Justice Minister Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger, rapporteur for the European Council in the Khodorkovsky case until 2009, believes "there are obvious political issues at play."

Russia's request for assistance in the case of Luchterhandt reinforces doubts that Putin will allow Khodorkovsky to return to public life, at least as long as he is in power. On the first page of the letter, the Russians write: "The investigation in this criminal matter continues." They add that "elements of the organized group headed by Khodorkovsky," who have fled abroad, are in the process of laundering billions of dollars worth of stolen oil revenue and are using the money to buy Russian and foreign experts. These individuals, the Russians claim, have been tasked with preparing public opinion in Russia for the "need to liberalize criminal sentencing law" in Khodorkovsky's favor. One of the selected academics is Luchterhandt, who, according to the reproachful letter, has already "publicly criticized several incidents in Russia" in recent years.

The document, signed by the "head of the investigation into especially important criminal acts against the government," Colonel of Justice F. G. Ganiyev, reads like the blueprint for a third Khodorkovsky trial.

The first trial ended in 2005, with a conviction for "fraud and tax evasion." In the second trial, in 2010, the court came to the conclusion that Khodorkovsky and his inner circle had stolen more than 200 million tons of crude oil and embezzled more than $20 million (€14.6 million). In a third trial, as the letter to the Germans suggests, he would likely be charged with being the head of an international network that is allegedly operating against the Russian state.

The investigation revolves around several assessments by independent experts provided in 2011, which declare the ruling in the second Khodorkovsky trial to be invalid. Ironically, Putin's political protégé, then President Dmitry Medvedev, requested the expert reports.

Devastating Verdict on Khodorkovsky Prosecution

Medvedev, hoping to defuse international criticism, assigned the task to his advisory board for human rights. It asked "highly qualified experts in the field of constitutional, criminal trial and corporate law" to review the verdict. Six Russian and three foreign experts were approached, including Luchterhandt, an expert on Eastern European law.

The reports were devastating for the Russian judiciary. Luchterhandt concluded that the second Khodorkovsky verdict "is deeply unjust. It is a massive violation of basic judicial principles of the constitutional state. It is also blatantly illegal, because it convicts the defendants of crimes they did not commit."

Medvedev forwarded the reports to the relevant judicial authority, which rejected the criticism and turned the case over to the Investigative Committee. It proceeded to take the authors of the reports to task, beginning with the Russian experts, who were accused of "obstruction of justice." At the same time, it was suggested that Khodorkovsky had used his embezzled fortune to pay 50 million rubles (€1.2 million) to various human rights experts.

Investigators armed with search warrants began turning up in the offices of the Russian experts in the late summer of 2012. They seized computers, mobile phones, email communications and even diplomas and passports, so as to refute the legal experts' "bogus" claims.

One of the experts, Moscow university rector Sergei Guriyev, even fled to Paris because of the investigations. Putin, who was now president once again, was aware of the harsh approach.

The Luchterhandt case shows that Russian prosecutors are now even setting their sights on foreign experts. They are still claiming that their intent is to question the German professor as a "witness." But the 37 questions he is to be asked sound more like an indictment. For instance, Luchterhandt is portrayed as being a "critic of the government bodies of the Russian Federation," "not objective" and "dependent" on monetary payments from Khodorkovsky's administrators.

Germany rejected Russia's legal assistance request on Sept. 24. In explaining her ministry's decision, Justice Minister Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger said that the Russian course of action in the Khodorkovsky case "contradicts basic German legal principles." Moreover, she argued, experience had shown that the Russian judiciary could not be trusted in this case. "After an examination in Moscow, you don't know whether your status is still that of a witness or if you are already a defendant," she said, noting that Luchterhandt could not be exposed to this risk.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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