MOSCOW, Feb 25 – Russia has transferred oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky to Moscow from a Siberian prison, officials said Tuesday, ahead of a new trial his defence fears could keep him in jail for two more decades.
Khodorkovksy, once Russia’s richest man, has been held in a prison in the remote far-eastern region of Chita since his condemnation in 2005 to eight years in jail on charges of fraud and tax evasion.
"The Khamovniki court in Moscow has been informed about Khodorkovsky’s transfer to Moscow," Moscow court spokeswoman Anna Usacheva told AFP.
The Interfax news agency quoted a security source as saying Khodorkovsky was now in Moscow’s Matrosskaya Tishina (Sailor’s Rest) prison, the same detention centre where he was held before his first trial.
The new trial in Moscow, due to begin on March 3, is to examine charges that he between 1998 and 2003 carried out embezzlement and illegal transactions worth 896 billion rubles (25 billion dollars at current exchange rates).
"Khodorkovsky could be sentenced to twenty-two-and-a-half extra years in prison," the spokesman for his defence team, Maksim Dbar told AFP.
But one of the defence lawyers, Karinna Moskalenko, vowed that the defence would fight to show that "this accusation is absurd".
Interfax quoted court officials as saying that permission had been granted for Khodorkovsky to meet his wife Inna and a team of five lawyers in Moscow.
"Certain top officials think that once Khodorkovsky is released he could become a rallying figure for the opposition against the background of the financial crisis," said analyst Valery Khomiakov.
Khodorkovsky was arrested at gunpoint in 2003 and his Yukos oil company — once a favourite of investors for its transparency — was gradually dismantled after being hit with massive back-tax claims.
His friend and former business associate Platon Lebedev had also been taken back to Moscow for the trial, Usacheva said. Lebedev is the former boss of Menatep holding group, which was the main shareholder in Yukos.
Since his conviction, Khodorkovsky has been serving his eight-year sentence along with Lebedev in the remote region of Chita, in the far east of Russia.
Adding to his legal woes, a separate lawsuit against Khodorkovsky is due to be heard on Wednesday at Moscow’s Meshchansky court on allegations that he sexually assaulted a former cellmate.
Alexander Kuchma, who slashed the tycoon’s face in 2006, claims in the lawsuit that the lawsuit was revenge for being sexually assaulted.
But Denis Yurinsky, an ex-prisoner who supervised Khodorkovsky in the jail sewing workshop went public Tuesday to say that the allegations were "complete nonsense."
"I am convinced… that Kuchma was simply put up to write this statement, so it would help smear (Khodorkovsky’s) parole application," Yurinsky told Kommersant-Vlast magazine.
The new trial means Khodorkovksy risks an additional prison sentence that could rule out any possibility of him being released in the near future. In August, a court rejected a request from Khodorkovsky for parole.
Russia has insisted it is dealing with Khodorkovsky fairly and that he committed financial fraud on a massive scale, starting in the 1990s when he acquired billions of dollars worth of assets in privatization deals.
However, human rights campaigners and some international observers have said the charges have been trumped up to punish him for his opposition to former president turned Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.
Despite defending Khodorkovsky’s reputation, Yurinsky said the billionaire was inept at handling sewing machines.
"You can’t make a machinist out of him," Yurinsky said. "How do you teach a person, if from the beginning it is clear that he has never handled anything except papers and money?"