Russians Open New Probe of Oil Baron

Russians Open New Probe of Oil Baron

Imprisoned Russian oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky is a suspect in a new money-laundering investigation, raising the possibility that the Kremlin foe, already serving an eight-year sentence for tax evasion and fraud, could spend many more years in prison, his attorney said Wednesday.

Khodorkovsky, his imprisoned partner Platon Lebedev, also a suspect, and their attorneys were summoned to a detention facility in the remote Siberian city of Chita to undergo questioning Wednesday. Both Khodorkovsky, founder of Yukos Oil Co., and Lebedev refused to answer questions, their attorneys said, rejecting the case as the continuation of a government vendetta that landed them in prison in the first place.

“A new case is the logical continuation of the selective justice aimed at putting moral and physical pressure on Mikhail Khodorkovsky, further destruction of Yukos and seizing its property,” Khodorkovsky attorney Yuri Schmidt said in a statement.

“Because of the lack of any independent investigation and the direct link of investigators and the head of the group to the Kremlin administration, Mikhail Khodorkovsky demanded that the entire investigation group be removed.” He is serving his sentence in an isolated Siberian camp 3,000 miles from Moscow.

Prosecutors provided no details about the probe. But Russian press reports said the case relates to the alleged sale of oil at below-market prices between subsidiaries of Yukos between 2000 and 2003. Prosecutors apparently allege that billions of dollars in undeclared profits were shifted to offshore accounts before being redistributed to other parties.

Among the suspected recipients of some of the money is Khodorkovsky’s now-defunct foundation, Open Russia, which spent millions of dollars on programs aimed at strengthening democracy and education in Russia. Critics of Khodorkovsky’s prosecution say he was targeted because his political activity, particularly his ability to fund opposition activity, was seen as a threat to the rule of President Vladimir Putin.

The Kremlin and prosecutors here say they reined in a rogue oligarch who defrauded the state.

Russian authorities have driven Yukos into bankruptcy, stripping it of its prime assets, pursuing remaining assets held abroad and launching investigations against company officers, including foreign executives.

In Moscow on Wednesday, prosecutors said they were investigating former Yukos shareholder and Khodorkovsky partner Leonid Nevzlin for possible involvement in the Nov. 23 poisoning death in London of former Russian intelligence agent Alexander Litvinenko, the Associated Press reported. A spokesman for Nevzlin, who lives in exile in Israel, called the probe “ridiculous.”

Two years ago, the state oil company Rosneft, which is chaired by a senior Kremlin official, acquired 76.79 percent of Yukos’s largest production unit for $9.3 billion after a murky government-run auction in which the unit was initially purchased by a front company.

The Yuganskneftegaz unit was pumping 1 million barrels of oil a day at the time of the sale and now accounts for 60 to 70 percent of Rosneft’s oil production. Rosneft was valued at more than $70 billion when it sold a 14.8 percent stake in the company in an initial public offering in July in London. Yukos continues to fight the sale of Yuganskneftegaz in Russian courts.

Yukos’s Russian assets are under the control of a Moscow court, and its foreign assets are held by a Dutch foundation, which is planning to sell them to pay off creditors, including Group Menatep, the largest. In the Dutch courts, the Russian authorities unsuccessfully fought the planned sale of Yukos assets, including a refinery in Lithuania.

If Menatep is paid an estimated $800 million in debts, Khodorkovsky and other shareholders would be left with a significant nest egg, something Russian officials appear determined to prevent.

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