What Does The Future Hold For Russia's Longest-Serving Political Prisoner?

Nov 22, 2013
Originally published on November 22, 2013 5:24 pm

Will political amnesty, proposed by the Kremlin’s Human Rights Council, free former oil billionaire Mikhail Khodorkovsky from prison, 10 years after he was jailed on charges of fraud and tax evasion?

Or will new charges be leveled that could keep the founder of the Yukos Oil Company in jail for years to come?

Well, it depends who you ask. What is clear is that Russia’s best-known political prisoner, once the richest man in Russia, is in a kind of limbo that has activists and organizations like Amnesty International crying for justice.

Russia watchers have long contended that his imprisonment had more to do with his run-ins with Russian president Vladmir Putin than his business practices, and the second sentence cemented that view among supporters.

Khodorkovsky’s son, Pavel Khodorkovsky, joins Here & Now’s Jeremy Hobson to discuss his hopes for his father’s freedom.

A documentary, “Free Khodorkovsky” explores the case. It will be airing on Sunday at the Coolidge Corner Theatre in Brookline, Mass (more info here). The movie was brought to Boston by 17-year-old activist Ariella Katz of the organization Democracy Is Right for Everyone.


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And it has been 10 years since the Russian oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky was sent to prison on charges of fraud and tax evasion. But many then - and even more now - believe the charges were bogus, and that Khodorkovsky was put behind bars for political reasons because he was seen as a political threat to President Putin. He's due to be released next August unless more charges are brought forth.

And his son Pavel is raising awareness of his father's case here in this country where he's the president of the Institute of Modern Russia in New York City. Pavel Khodorkovsky joins us in the studio now. Thanks for coming in.

PAVEL KHODORKOVSKY: Thank you for having me.

HOBSON: Well, what's your sense of what is going to happen? Do you think that your father is going to get out of prison on time in August?

KHODORKOVSKY: This is certainly my hope. His sentence right now is said to run out in August of next year, and his co-defendant's and former business partner's Platon Lebedev's sentence is due to run out in May. So I'm looking forward to Platon Lebedev's release on the second of May, and I hope that nothing would stand in the way and both men will be free next year.

HOBSON: So you think if he is released in May, then that bodes well for your father really being released in August.

KHODORKOVSKY: Exactly. They have the same case, same set of charges. Their cases were actually united during the court proceedings some years ago. So Platon's release would mean my father's freedom as well.

HOBSON: Although you've said that your father doesn't even think about the date because it's been pushed back before.

KHODORKOVSKY: That's true. I tried asking him what's his state of mind, what is he thinking about in the wake of August next year, and he said, I don't want to even speculate. Thinking back to 2007, right before the second set of charges were brought up against my father, we were looking forward to 2011. That's when his.../

HOBSON: He was supposed to be released the first time.

KHODORKOVSKY: And then our hopes and expectations were crushed. So he has adopted this point of view after the second verdict was handed down that he was not going to think about his potential release because anything could change.

HOBSON: How often do you speak with him? And what do you talk about?

KHODORKOVSKY: We get a chance to speak every couple of weeks. He is allowed one phone call, like every other inmate in jail, for 15 minutes on a Saturday. And he has to split this time because...

HOBSON: He's got a lot of people to talk to.

KHODORKOVSKY: My grandparents are back home. My family is here in the U.S. My brothers are now studying abroad. So he has to portion out the time. But we get to speak on the phone every couple of weeks.

HOBSON: What is your sense of what happened to him in the first place after all these years? You've had a lot of time to think about this, but he was charged originally with tax evasion. Then the later charge is stealing from his own company. His defenders say this was just punishment by President Putin for challenging his power. What is your sense of what has happened over all these years?

KHODORKOVSKY: Well, there are two main components that led to my father's arrest. First is political. Certainly, the government and then and now again President Vladimir Putin were not happy with the idea that a prominent businessman is strengthening the opposition by openly financing the opposition parties. But there was also a very important economic component as well.

Igor Sechin, now the head of Rosneft, back then saw this as an opportunity to strengthen the government's role in the national economy by renationalizing one of the top companies in Russia, and soon to be the world because, if you remember, Yukos was in the process of merging with Sibneft. That would create one of the largest companies in the world.


KHODORKOVSKY: Then the question is really why did my father do it. He knew perfectly what's about to happen. He really thought that he has a good chance of defending his name in open proceedings in the court. And, of course, he found out the hard way that there is no more rule of law in Russia.

HOBSON: What about the charges themselves?

KHODORKOVSKY: Well, the charges in the first trial were rather complicated. You know, dealing with corporate taxation is not an easy matter. And that's why thinking back to 2003, so many people in the Russian society and abroad were confused about the nature of the case.

But this has completely changed after the second trial because the charges in the second trial directly contradicted those in the first. You either underpay taxes or you embezzle everything. You can't be expected to pay tax on stolen property. And those charges brought up in a second trial really changed the public opinion. Public opinion is now strongly in favor of my father.

HOBSON: And all over the world, this case has attracted attention. I'm interested in your thoughts on that. You've been brought here by a 17-year-old activist, Ariella Katz, member of this group Democracy is for Everyone. What do you think about the international attention that your father's case has brought?

KHODORKOVSKY: My father's case has come to symbolize many things that are currently wrong with the Russian government and partially with the whole direction of the country. It's not only about my father and hasn't been about my father for a while right now. It symbolizes a lack of rule of law. It also symbolizes the course of repression that the government has taken. So I believe this is why so many people around the world are attracted to following Russian events. And in this case, it was Ariella and her father. This gave them a glimpse of what Russia is going through right now.

HOBSON: What do you see your role as being in this - you're speaking about this, but you haven't gone back to Russia since 2003?

KHODORKOVSKY: My role is to raise public awareness about my father's case and about other cases of political prisoners that are currently serving time in Russia.

HOBSON: In the United States?

KHODORKOVSKY: I have to do it from the U.S. because, unfortunately, my family has been facing some risk. And for me, going back to Russia would probably not be the best idea right now.

HOBSON: When do you intend to go back to Russia next?

KHODORKOVSKY: My father is going to be released in August. I'm certainly going to be there to meet him when he gets out of jail. But I think that I owe a lot to people in this country and in other places around the world that have been following my father's case. Ten years on, people still care about what's my father's fate, and that's really heartwarming because I don't think that my father would be able to have this courage and moral strengths if he didn't have the support. And he certainly knows about the fact that people care about him because I tell him.

HOBSON: Pavel Khodorkovsky is president of the Institute of Modern Russia in New York. He's also the son of the Russian, some would say, political prisoner Mikhail Khodorkovsky. Pavel, thank you so much for coming in.


HOBSON: And you're listening to HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.