Putin vs. Khodorkovsky: The Courtroom as Battlefield

They say that revenge is a dish best served cold, and probably nobody in the world understands that better than deposed Russian oil baron Mikhail Khodorkovsky.

Whilst literally seated on ice cubes in a Siberian prison cell, Khodorkovsky, though deprived of his billions and his freedom (to say nothing of his hair), has nonetheless mapped out and executed a devastating counterattack on his jailer, Vladimir Putin.

Khodorkovsky was formerly the head of the massive YUKOS oil concern and Russia’s richest man. The moment he began making noises about challenging Putin for the presidency he was summarily arrested, railroaded on bogus embezzlement charges, and sent off for a lengthy stretch in Siberia. His entire company, which had been leading the way in bringing Western accounting and management practices to Russia, was seized and usurped by the Russian government.

Human rights groups around the globe have condemned the kangaroo judicial proceedings he faced, and now he faces a second go-round that makes the first proceeding look like a tea party.

Double jeopardy being standard procedure in Russia, Khodorkovsky is being retried on exactly the same charges, except that now the amount of goods he allegedly personally misappropriated now amounts to the total value of goods produced by the company. There is little doubt that he faces the single most absurd criminal indictment ever leveled against an individual in the annals of jurisprudence.

The conditions under which he is conveyed from jail to court each day are truly barbaric: “For two hours each way, the man who once supplied 2 percent of the world’s oil crouches in a steel cage measuring 47 by 31 by 20 inches.” The indictment charging him with new crimes is nearly 3,500 pages long.

But now, even as he vies with Kremlin prosecutors in a Moscow courtroom under such oppressive conditions, Khodorkovsky is unbowed. He has struck back.

First, he published a devastating condemnation of the Russian justice system in the opposition newspaper Nezavisimaya Gazeta. He wrote that “the steamroller that has replaced justice is the gravedigger of the modern Russian state" and accused the Putin regime of operating a mafia-like judicial system whose "destruction will occur in the traditional way for Russia -- from below and with bloodshed.”

There is simply no way of overstating the impact these words will have as they reverberate inside the red brick walls of the Moscow Kremlin. Nobody speaks to the Kremlin this way, least of all those within its prison system. The notion that a man deprived of his wealth and chained down in barbaric conditions in Siberia could retain the wherewithal to write them, much less get them published, is beyond the comprehension of the clan of KGB villains who now rule the country. It is as if he roars:  “The only way you can stop me is to kill me. Do you dare?”

And that was just the appetizer.

For the main course, Khodorkovsky served up a massive $100 billion lawsuit against Putin, filed not in Russian courts but in the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), with opening statements just hours after his op-ed hit the streets.

Make no mistake: If the ECHR determines that Russia, a signatory to its treaty, violated basic international law when it stripped Khodorkovsky and his fellow shareholders of their property rights in YUKOS, it can order that property restored. And if the Kremlin won’t pay?  The ECHR can order the seizure of Russian assets throughout Europe, and there are plenty of them available for seizure.

More important, though, such a ruling by the ECHR would strip away the last vestiges of legitimacy enjoyed by the Putin regime.  It would make the accusations in Khodorkovsky’s op-ed the law. The Putin regime has already been convicted many times of state-sponsored murder and torture in the Caucasus region by the ECHR, and it has liquidated three high-profile human rights advocates who tried to tell Russians that story (Anna Politkovskaya, Natalia Estemirova, and Stanislav Markelov).  An earth-shaking hundred-billion-dollar judgment would bring international attention to those rulings as well.

It’s simply amazing that, even from behind bars, Khodorkovsky could so masterfully arrange these proceedings in Europe to correspond with his own trial back in Russia. There’s no telling how far this man could have taken his country if he’d been given a chance to lead it.

But Russians chose instead to turn over the reins of power to a proud KGB spy. It is now beginning to seem that Putin made a very grave error when he jailed Khodorkovsky. Putin has shown how easy it is for him to shamelessly rig presidential elections and to marginalize opposition leaders like Garry Kasparov (who recently published his own sensational provocation of the Kremlin, though not in the Russian press). Had he used the same tactic on Khodorkovsky, his position might well be much stronger than it is today.

But Putin panicked. Just as his puppet front-man Dmitri Medvedev cravenly backed out of a scheduled appearance at the closing ceremonies of the Vancouver Olympics after Russia turned in its worst-ever performance on the field and off (a massive doping scandal and horrific incidents of poor sportsmanship made the country’s anemic medal count even more odious), Putin simply did not have the confidence to face a titan like Khodorkovsky man to man.

Now, two armies are gathered, fighting two simultaneous battles, one in Strasbourg and one in Moscow. The soldiers are lawyers, and the result of their combat will likely determine Russia’s future. As well as, perhaps, a good deal of our own.