Jailed Russian oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky on Tuesday ridiculed charges that he stole $30 billion of oil from his own company, beginning his defence in a trial that could keep him in prison for another 22 years.
Khodorkovsky, once Russia’s richest man, was arrested in 2003 after falling foul of the Kremlin under Vladimir Putin, and is serving an eight-year sentence for tax evasion after a trial his supporters dismissed as a farce.
Now Russia’s most prominent prisoner, Khodorkovsky has cast his second trial as a test of whether President Dmitry Medvedev is serious about his pledge to reform Russia’s judicial system.
In a drab Moscow courtroom, state prosecutors have spent the past year arguing that Khodorkovsky stole $30 billion of oil from subsidiaries of YUKOS between 1998 and 2003 and laundered 500 billion roubles ($17.07 billion) of the money.
But the 46-year-old former billionaire dismissed the charges, saying prosecutors had presented no proper evidence. He demanded they drop what he called a “fabricated case”.
“I consider this case to be political and corrupt, orchestrated by my opponents to prevent me from walking free,” Khodorkovsky, dressed in jeans with a black T-shirt and jacket, told the court from a glass cage.
“The court has accused me of stealing 350 million tonnes of oil based on sources not named in the investigation,” he said. “No documentation about the seizure or sale of oil has been presented.”
At one point, the former oil baron produced a jar of crude oil to lecture prosecutors on the specifics of the oil business and used a slide show to illustrate the ownership structure of YUKOS. The judge ordered court bailiffs to remove the jar.
Khodorkovsky argued the charges were illogical since it would be impossible to steal 350 million tonnes of oil, more than YUKOS produced in the period under question, from the company he controlled.
He said the oil he is accused of stealing was in YUKOS’ accounts for the period in question and dividends had been paid to shareholders from the profit.
“To speak of me defrauding myself, in my opinion, is absurd,” he told the packed courtroom. A guard holding an AK-47 rifle sat beside the cage from which Khodorkovsky spoke.
Russia, the world’s biggest oil producer, pumped about 494 million tonnes of oil in 2009.
The Kremlin’s battle with Khodorkovsky and the carve-up of YUKOS, once Russia’s biggest oil company producing more than OPEC member Qatar, fuelled critics’ claims that the Kremlin used the courts to enforce its political and financial interests.
His arrest allowed the Kremlin to clip the wings of Russia’s oligarchs — a group of businessmen known for their immense wealth and influence — by sending a message that anyone who stepped out of line could follow Khodorkovsky to Siberia.
The former oil baron has repeatedly proclaimed his innocence and said the charges were cooked up by senior officials to stymie his political ambitions and carve up his multi-billion dollar business empire.
Like many of his business peers, Khodorkovsky built a fortune by buying state assets cheaply and trading commodities in the chaos after the Soviet Union collapsed.