Is Mikhail Khodorkovsky A Political Prisoner?

If you know the name Mikhail Khodorkovsky, it probably doesn't surprise you to learn that his lawyer, Robert Amsterdam, has published a 75-page white paper documenting a litany of constitutional violations by the Kremlin prosecutors who got his client sentenced to eight years in a Siberian gulag on allegations of corporate fraud.

But so what, right? What else would his own lawyer say?

Khodorkovsky, former CEO of the formerly enormous YUKOS oil concern (now liquidated by the Kremlin) was arrested four years ago last week, at five o'clock in the morning Moscow time, while his airplane was refueling in the Siberian town of Novosibirsk.

Three days before that Mikhail Trepashkin, attorney for the commission that had been investigating whether the Kremlin bombed two Moscow apartment buildings in order to create a justification for a renewed attack in Chechnya, had also been arrested. Five months later Vladimir Putin would be reelected president of Russia with 70% of the vote even though, owing to the increasingly bloody war Putin was waging in Chechyna, public opinion polls taken six months before Khodorkovsky's arrest had shown Putin with less than 50% job approval ratings.

Allegations that the Kremlin jailed Khodorokovsky to keep him from contesting for the presidency have been widely reported. A Google search for his name yields a quarter million hits, including hundreds of articles condemning his mistreatment. But then, criminals always protest their innocence, right?

Those who would defend the Kremlin's prosecution of Khodorkovsky as an effort to struggle against Russia's pandemic problem of corruption have received two rather jolting wakeup calls recently.

First, in late August, the Supreme Court of Switzerland rejected a petition by Russian prosecutors seeking the release of bank documents relating to YUKOS executives -- ostensibly for purposes of finalizing its liquidation but undoubtedly also in an effort to gather more evidence against Khodorkovsky, who faces a second round of charges and trial. The Kremlin has not been satisfied to merely jail Khodorkovsy and liquidate his firm, but has gone after many members of his executive team as well (this has even included Svetlana Bakhmina, the mother of two who served as YUKOS in-house counsel). The Swiss tribunal ruled that there were "concrete facts that lead to the inference that [Khodorkovsky] is under pursuit for hidden motives, notably in relation to his political opinions" and it refused to participate in what it saw as a fundamentally corrupt process.

Then last week, the European Court for Human Rights ruled that the Kremlin's prosecution of Khodorkovsky's right-hand man, Platon Lebedev, violated international human rights laws, and awarded him thousands of dollars in damages and legal fees. The ECHR determined that Lebedev had been held illegally without charges or bail, that he had been denied access to his attorney, that his attorney had been denied access to court proceedings, and that his appeal process had been obstructed. In a press release, Lebedev's defense team stated: "It should be noted that this is only the first of several applications brought to the European Court by Mr. Lebedev, by Mr. Lebedev's business partner and close friend Mikhail Khodorkovsky, and by YUKOS itself. While this petition dealt only with issues related to Mr. Lebedev's pre-trial incarceration, other applications ask the ECHR to rule on the fairness of Mr. Lebedev's trial and the political nature of the charges brought against him and Mr. Khodorkovsky."

Russia currently has far more charges pending against it in the ECHR than any other nation in the world, ranging from persecution of religious minorities to state-sponsored murder of civilians in Chechnya. The Court has been deluged to such an extent that it has been forced to set up special sections devoted to Russia; growing more and more desperate in the face of this onslaught, the Kremlin has gone as far as to try to create its own commission to investigate human rights violations in the U.S. and Europe, and there is even speculation about an assassination attempt having been made against one of the court's judges by Russia's secret police.

If this is the tip of the iceberg, and the ECHR ultimately rules that Khodorkovsky and Lebedev have not only been harassed during the investigatory phase but been sentenced on trumped-up charges for political reasons, the last vestige of Vladimir Putin's legitimacy will be formally swept away.

Those who believed Putin would step down from power after serving eight years as president have already been forced to eat crow as they watched Putin announce he'd simply change hats, from president to prime minister, retaining control over the Kremlin indefinitely. Now, they must contemplate the reality that Putin railroaded his only real opposition into prison so that he could rise to power by means of pseudo-elections that did not confer any actual legitimacy at all.

Khodorkovsky became famous in Western business circles for adopting Western standards of accounting and corporate transparency on his own, virtually unheard of in Russia before then, aggressively seeking to lead Russia into the modern civilized age in a manner very similar to what Peter the Great famously tried centuries before. Formal legal rulings from unimpeachable international tribunals now begin to make it appear that, in fact, he's more akin to Soviet dissidents like Andrei Sakharov and Alexander Solzhenitisyn, right down to doing time in Siberian prison, than to a mere titan of capitalism in the wild, wild East.

On June 16, 2001, at a press conference in Brdo Pri Kranju, Slovenia, President Bush was asked about Vladimir Putin: "Is this a man that Americans can trust?" Bush replied: "I will answer the question. I looked the man in the eye. I found him to be very straightforward and trustworthy. We had a very good dialogue. I was able to get a sense of his soul; a man deeply committed to his country and the best interests of his country. And I appreciated so very much the frank dialogue."

If President Bush really wants to understand today's Russia, maybe he should spend some time peering into the Khodorkovsky's eyes.

Last week, Khodorkhovsky was denied his parole petition, having served half his sentence, because, according to his lawyer, he "did not put his hands behind his back -- as prison rules require -- when he returned to his cell after exercise." His punishment for this egregious offense: four more years in Siberian prison.

Kim Zigfeld is a New York City-based writer who blogs at the Pajamas Media Network blog Publius Pundit and publishes her own Russia specialty blog, La Russophobe. She also writes for Russia! magazine and is researching a book on the rise of dictatorship in Putin's Russia.