Was it out of shame that Judge Viktor Danilkin ordered journalists out of Moscow’s Khamovnichesky Court on Monday just after he pronounced the “guilty” verdict against Mikhail Khodorkovsky and his co-defendant, Platon Lebedev? Or was it simply another example of what Russians call “telephone justice” — replacing the rule of law with direct orders from high-level politicians?
It’s hard to say whether the judge himself was embarrassed by the verdict, but Prime Minister Vladimir Putin made it clear several days ago how the Khodorkovsky trial would unfold when, responding to a question on national television, he declared: “A thief should sit in jail.”
As one of Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s defense attorneys, I can confirm that my client will appeal the court’s verdict. He will do so because he has not lost hope that Russia one day will come under the rule of law, a goal which President Dmitri Medvedev himself has declared must be met if the country is to become a modern, successful state.
Mr. Khodorkovsky’s imprisonment was politically motivated from the start. People at the pinnacle of power saw him as a threat and wanted him behind bars; their efforts were supported by corrupt middle-tier officials who wanted to raid the assets of Yukos, the company he built.
In our appeal, we will demonstrate the absurdity of the charges against him, starting with the impossible accusation of embezzlement of all of the oil produced by Yukos over a six-year period. We will also challenge the procedures in Judge Danilkin’s court. The judge systematically denied defense motions to attach documentary evidence, examine witnesses and hear expert testimony. Meanwhile, almost all of the prosecution’s motions were granted.
An appeal in a politically controlled court system may be doomed. But there are other ways for the Russian government to do what’s right for the nation’s future. President Medvedev has said that our system of justice must treat all people equally. We now have irrefutable evidence that the system does not respect that principle. Mr. Medvedev knows this because he himself was once chairman of Gazprom, a company that clearly benefits from a different set of rules than that of Mr. Khodorkovsky.
Regardless of the verdict, President Medvedev, as the guarantor of the people’ s rights under the Russian Constitution, may release Mr. Khodorkovsky by issuing a pardon before his presidential term expires in early 2012.
While Mr. Putin has suggested on numerous occasions that a convict must admit guilt in requesting a pardon, the law in fact does not require such an admission, or even that a petition for a pardon be filed. Mr. Medvedev can put an end to the persecution of Mr. Khodorkovsky simply by granting a pardon as a humanitarian gesture.
We find it hard to imagine that Mr. Medvedev — himself a highly qualified legal scholar — would want the consequences of this judicial farce to stand during his tenure as president; it would mock his pledge to rid the country of “legal nihilism.” Moreover, the verdict would certainly be disavowed upon appeal to the European Court of Human Rights.
Other solutions for putting an end to the persecution of Mr. Khodorkovsky could involve either the court itself granting parole (he has already served the minimum term required), or an amnesty, if Russia’s Parliament votes for it. Strong political will would be required for either action to take place.
An end to Mr. Khodorkovsky’s persecution would send a strong signal that change is coming to Russia and that there is hope that the country will develop a legal system worthy of the name. This would be good news for Russian citizens and for foreign investors who hesitate to put their money into an economy where property rights are not secure. It would also be welcomed by other national governments, which have hesitated to trust a country that does not abide by a regime of law.
Mr. Khodorkovsky’s case may be as important for Russia’s friends abroad as it is for Russians themselves. Let Judge Danilkin’s decision to clear the courtroom be the last time Russians cringe when they look at their system of justice.
Yuri Schmidt, one of the lead defense attorneys for Mikhail Khodorkovsky.