An assistant to the judge in the latest trial of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the oil magnate jailed eight years ago after defying then-Russian president and current Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, went public on Monday with the claim that the judge’s superiors pressured him to deliver a harsh sentence.
The assistant, Natalya Vasilyeva, said the judge had been monitored by senior judicial officials who dictated his major rulings. Vasilyeva said it was widely known in the judicial system that the case was rigged from the start.
The judge, Viktor Danilkin, “had to communicate with the Moscow City Court on all sorts of controversial issues that came up during the trial,” Vasilyeva said. “That is, when something happens, when something goes wrong, not the way it should be, he had to provide information to the Moscow City Court and, of course, then received from there certain instructions about how to behave.”
She made her remarks to the online newspaper Gazeta.ru and the Dozhd cable television channel. She was described as an assistant to Danilkin and his spokeswoman.
The judge denied that he had been pressured and said Vasilyeva’s comments were slanderous.
“The statement by Vasilyeva is a lie, which may be refuted legally — that is, with a lawsuit,” he told the Interfax news agency.
Khodorkovsky, once Russia’s richest man, has been imprisoned since 2003 after challenging Putin. He was convicted of tax fraud in 2005 and the sentence in that case was due to end this year.
However, prosecutors put him on trial again last year and Danilkin found him guilty in December on embezzlement charges involving his oil company, Yukos.
The judge gave him a new sentence that will keep him in prison until 2017.
Khodorkovsky’s lawyers have repeatedly said the second trial was a farce and that the Kremlin ordered the new charges to ensure Khodorkovsky would not be free during upcoming parliamentary and presidential elections. They said the case demonstrated how the judicial system was manipulated by the executive branch.
Vasilyeva’s comments seemed to offer evidence of that.
“Danilkin began to write the sentence,” she said. “I suspect that the higher authorities did not like something in it. And in connection with this, he received a new sentence, which he had to hand down.”
Vasilyeva said she knew she would lose her job over the interview. Later in the day, a court spokeswoman said Vasilyeva had resigned.