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Archive for Saturday, July 17, 2004

Russian oil tycoon calls fraud charges ‘absurd’

July 17, 2004

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— The former head of Russia's largest oil company, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, told a court Friday that the charges of tax evasion and fraud against him were "absurd," a news report said.

The statement from Khodorkovsky, Russia's richest man, was part of his first full formal response to the charges since he was arrested at gunpoint at a Siberian airport nearly eight months ago.

"They are accusing me of not paying taxes, but I will prove this is absurd," Khodorkovsky said, according to the ITAR-Tass news agency.

Khodorkovsky faces an array of charges including tax evasion, fraud and forgery; a conviction could bring a sentence of up to 10 years in prison. He spoke a day after he and co-defendant Platon Lebedev pleaded entered pleas of innocent.

Lebedev, who has told the court he is ill, also made a statement, saying the charges against him were fabricated and that there was no proof of his guilt.

Also Friday, defense lawyers alleged that the court was biased, ruling exclusively in favor of the prosecutors. Khodorkovsky attorney Karinna Moskalenko said the court refused to require prosecutors to provide evidence they cited as motivation for keeping Lebedev in custody.

The judge ordered the trial adjourned until Tuesday.

The case is part of a complex web of legal actions against Yukos. The government is seeking $3.4 billion in back taxes that Yukos says could force it into bankruptcy.

The state says the legal actions against Yukos and Khodorkovsky are part of an anti-corruption drive, but critics say they are Kremlin-led retaliation for the tycoon's political aspirations and growing clout.

The charges against Khodorkovsky and Lebedev center on the 1994 privatization of a company that makes a key fertilizer component -- one of the deals that helped Khodorkovsky build an empire that made him Russia's richest man.

Prosecutors say Khodorkovsky and Lebedev were part of an "organized group" that won a 20 percent stake in the company, Apatit, through a scheme involving shell structures that bid for the shares.

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