Thu, Nov 13, 2003 - Page 7 News List

Khodorkovsky refused bail by court

NO EXPLANATION The court refused to explain its decision to keep the Russian tycoon behind bars, and closed the hearing when political colleagues showed up


A court refused on Tuesday to free Mikhail Khodorkovsky, Russia's richest businessman, upholding an earlier decision to hold him in prison at least until the end of the year, as prosecutors complete an investigation into charges of fraud, tax evasion and other crimes.

Following a two-and-a-half-hour hearing that was closed to the public, three judges on the Moscow City Court dismissed without explanation an appeal by Khodorkovsky's lawyers that he be released on bail pending trial on the charges, which they have called groundless and politically motivated.

Khodorkovsky, who resigned last week as chairman of Yukos Oil, made his first public appearance since his arrest on Oct. 25, albeit by closed-circuit camera.

Grainy television monitors in the cramped courtroom showed him behind bars in a holding cell, dressed in a knit sweater, his hair cropped close. As the chief judge, Marina Selina, restated the charges he faced, he rocked slowly from foot to foot, his head bowed. He then shrugged when she upheld his detention.

He spoke at the start of the hearing, but only to answer perfunctory questions about his name, birth date, residence and the acceptance of his lawyers.

Irina Yasina, a spokeswoman for Open Russia, the philanthropic organization Khodorkovsky created in 2001, was on the verge of tears as she spoke after the decision, which she said "was made in advance."

"It's like in Soviet times," she said. "Everyone gets in line."

There may have been little surprise in the decision, but there was some drama in the courthouse corridors. Several prominent liberal members of the lower house of the Russian parliament, the Duma, appeared in the courtroom, only to be ushered out when the judges closed the hearing at the request of the prosecutor.

The prosecutor, Valery Lakhtin, warned that a public hearing could compromise the investigation because Khodorkovsky's co-conspirators could be in the chamber.

"I can tell you that the people in the courtroom were Duma deputies and lawyers," Boris B. Nadezhdin, a member of parliament from the Union of Right Forces, said mockingly after his expulsion. He was one of 40 lawmakers and other public figures who vouched in a letter to the court that Khodorkovsky would not flee the country if released on bail.

Khodorkovsky's lawyer, Anton Drel, said it was unconscionable to hold his client in prison for an investigation of economic crimes when the billionaire businessman had made it clear he would remain in Russia to fight the charges against him. Drel said he would consider further appeals. He also challenged the decision to close the hearing.

"He's not refusing to be questioned," Drel said outside the courthouse. "He turned in all of his passports when he was arrested. There are no grounds for him to hide, to threaten witnesses or influence the court."

President Vladimir Putin has insisted that Khodorkovsky's case, which has rattled the country's financial markets and prompted international criticism, would be conducted openly and fairly. But so far none of the court hearings in the investigation that has swirled around Yukos since July has been conducted in public.

On the eve of Tuesday's hearing, Putin reiterated his argument that no one in Russia should be above the law.

"Equality before the law is the main condition that enables a society to call itself democratic and makes it efficient," he said at a ceremony on Monday evening honoring the nation's police. "Respect for the law is a permanent process that cannot be boiled down to election campaigns and hot air."

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