Khodorkovsky and the Trial that Scared the Kremlin

Among the regime’s many defenders, the leadership of the Kremlin can count upon a supportive chorus in the West to parlay any criticism of Russia’s democratic bankruptcy – happily pointing to high GDP growth over the past decade, and deriding the opposition’s alleged lack of support. “Human rights” is just a hypocritical attack of those fearing the great Russian revival, they proudly declare. Authoritarian cronyism really isn’t such a bad way to go, they argue, perhaps citing some recent attempt toward ideology by Surkov or complaining of NATO encirclement. Corruption, perhaps, is just a topic best avoided and ignored for them.

But the one thing that can’t really be accounted for by these voices of repressive reason is Russia’s political prisoners. There’s no good way to argue one’s way out of the death of Hermitage lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, there’s no plausible excuse for the medical blackmail of Yukos lawyer Vasily Alexanyan, and there’s certainly no way for the authorities to hide the small detail of who benefitted from the theft of Russia’s largest oil company in the current second trial of Mikhail Khodorkovsky and Platon Lebedev.

Political prisoners are truly the Achilles’ heel of modern authoritarianism – the one record of conduct that cannot withstand the burden of serious consideration.

The Russian authorities appear to understand this, and have shown theiropen fear of the Khodorkovsky trial, revealing doubts in their ownlegitimacy. This week, the defense has been suddenly tasked withopening up its case at a moment of dubious timing … right around theEaster holiday, a week after a new wave of terror bombings has grippedMoscow, and coming shortly before a major meeting between PresidentsBarack Obama and Dmitry Medvedev to sign an arms treaty (let us assumethat when these two men embrace their nuke trade off, that rule of lawis one item which was removed from the table).

Timing may or may not be conspirational (it certainly has been in thepast), but now they are even opening up an investigation intoNezavisimaya Gazeta for having published Khodorkovsky’s article on howthe “conveyor belt” of Russian justice works to establish a system of”legalized violence.” Allegedly, the prosecutors appear to be concernedthat the article contained extremist statements … as though we neededfurther proof of the political nature of this process.

The idea that Vladimir Putin will be called upon to testify as a witnessin this trial, which most likely he will be forced to refuse or escapein a show of public cowardice, has deepened these fears and doubts amongthe leadership. If the siloviki are afraid of even going through themotions of a rigged but public process, then what else, we must ask, arethey hiding?

In short the timing couldn’t be worse for the world to pay attention tothis “tragi-farcical“event, a process which makes Kafka’s trial look realistic and fair bycomparison. The very charges underpinning this years-long process,costing the Russian people an absurd amount of public budget and costingthese two men more years in prison than is tolerable, are completelyincoherent: you cannot say that someone stole all of Yukos oil while atthe same time sustaining that they had failed to pay taxes on profitsmade from selling that same oil! The fact that major news organizationseven have to pretend that what is occurring in this courtroom issomehow related to the administration of judicial affairs is an insultto the intelligence of the Russian people.

Nevertheless, they defense team continues forward, trapped in a processthat they know is arbitrary, biased, and rigged, and yet obligated toparticipate in it and validating the state’s performance. In the comingweeks, I expect very interesting information to be disclosed, and thenignored, at this trial. But at least in one area, concerned observerscan help by simply paying attention to what’s being said, andremembering just how bad rule of law can get in a political case inPutin’s Russia.


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Robert Amsterdam

Robert Amsterdam

Robert Amsterdam is an international lawyer and founding partner of the law firm Amsterdam & Peroff.

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