Mr. President, last October marked the fifth anniversary of the arrest of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the former head of Yukos, Russia’s largest oil company. The Council of Europe, Freedom House, and Amnesty International, among others, have concluded he was charged and imprisoned in a process that did not follow the rule of law and was politically influenced. This miscarriage of justice in 2003 is significant because it was one of the early signs that Russia was retreating from democratic values and the rule of law.
Last month, Russian authorities decided to go to trial with a second set of charges first introduced in 2007 when Khodorkovsky was to become eligible for parole. Despite credible reports that he was a model prisoner, parole was denied on apparently flimsy and contrived technical grounds. Yet the Russian judiciary recently saw fit to grant parole to Colonel Yuri Budanov, who was serving a sentence for raping and murdering a Chechen girl. I would also like to note that it was Stanislav Markelov, a courageous attorney who was instrumental in putting Budanov behind bars. But Budanov is now free and Markelov was gunned down, along with Anastasia Baburova a journalist for Russia’s premier independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta, in broad daylight in central Moscow last January. The message this sends is loud and clear and profoundly disturbing.
Based on the observations of many independent international lawyers and organizations, there was no compelling evidence that Khodorkovsky or any of his associates were guilty of the crimes for which they were originally charged or that the legal process reflected the rule of law or international standards of justice. Even Russian officials have acknowledged that Khodorkovsky’s arrest and imprisonment were politically motivated. As reported by the Economist, Igor Shuvalov, First Deputy Prime Minister of Russia, admitted that Khodorkovsky was in a Siberian prison camp “for political reasons.” He added that “Once you behead someone, you give a good example (to other Russian tycoons) of how to behave.” In other words, freedom for Russia’s businessmen is determined by the Kremlin’s political expediency. As reported by The Washington Post and the Boston Globe, Shuvalov has called the trial and continued imprisonment of Khodorkovsky a “show-flogging” intended to serve as an example to others on the political consequences of challenging the Kremlin’s economic ambitions.
The current charges against Khodorkovsky amount to legal hooliganism and highlight the petty meanness of the senior government officials behind this travesty of justice. The charges and verdicts have been inexplicable to Russian and Western lawyers, leading international organizations, courts, and human rights groups to condemn the trial as politically inspired. The second set of charges against Khodorkovsky should be dropped and the new trial should be abandoned.
I strongly support President Obama’s call to reset the U.S.-Russian relationship and welcome the statement that emerged from his meeting in London with Russian President Medvedev. We have many common interests with Russia and must seek to improve the atmosphere and substance of our ties with Moscow. But the Helsinki process is predicated on the idea that domestic politics and inter-state relations are linked. I hope that President Medvedev, a trained jurist from whom many hope to see evidence of a reformist approach, will make that connection. The case of Mikhail Khodorkovsky is a good place to start.