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Russia: rule of law on trial
A verdict due on the Yukos oil case will decide whether Russia will become a country of freedom and law or become stuck in Soviet-like repression, says one of the accused.
Mikhail Khodorkovsky, Russia's richest man who dared to challenge Vladimir Putin, founder of the Menapet bank, the major shareholder of the Yukos oil company, was arrested in October 2003 along with co-principal Platon Lebedev. Both were found guilty in May 2005 of tax evasion and sentenced to nine years in prison. The sentence was later reduced to 8 years. Their second trial on fraud charges began on March 31, 2009. This week Judge Viktor Danilkin was due to deliver a verdict in Moscow but it has been put off until December 27th.
MercatorNet reproduces here Mr Khodorkovsky's final speech at his trial -- not because we hold a brief for his character, but because it strikes us as, in the words of Open Democracy, "an eloquent summary of the larger problem Russia faces of being unable to modernize because of its governance."
Today is for me one more opportunity to look back at the past. I remember October 2003. My last day of freedom. Several weeks after my arrest, I was informed that President Putin had decided that I was going to have to “sup prison gruel” for 8 years. Back then this was hard to believe.
Seven years have already passed since that day. Seven years is in any case quite a long stretch of time, and especially in prison. All of us have had time to reassess and rethink many things.
The prosecutors’ words - “give them 14 years” and “forget about previous court decisions” – lead me to conclude that over these years they have begun to fear me more, and to respect the law even less.
The first time round they at least made the effort to repeal the judicial acts that stood in their way first. Now they have decided that they’ll just leave things as they are. Especially now they would need to repeal not 2 court decisions like last time, but 60.
I do not want now to return to the legal side of the case. Anyone who wanted to understand anything has long since understood it all. I don’t think anyone is seriously expecting an admission of guilt from me. It is hardly likely that anybody would believe me today if I said I had stolen all the oil produced by my own company.
But just the same, no one believes that it’s possible for a Moscow court to make an acquittal in the YUKOS case.
Nonetheless, I want to say something about hope. Hope is the main thing in life.
I remember the end of the 1980s. I was 25 then. Our country was living with the hope of freedom, hope that we would be able to achieve happiness for ourselves and for our children.
These hopes were partly realized, partly not. Responsibility for the fact that the hopes were not realized in full, and not for everyone, probably lies with our whole generation, including myself.
I also remember the end of the last decade. At that time I was 35. We were building the best oil company in Russia. We were putting up sports complexes and cultural centres, laying roads, exploring and developing dozens of new oil fields. We began developing the reserves in East Siberia, introducing new technologies. In general, we were doing then all that Rosneft is proud of today, having taken over YUKOS.
A significant increase in oil production, including as a result of our successes, meant that the country was able to take advantage of a favourable oil situation. We all hoped that the period of shocks and disturbance was behind us and that, in conditions of stability achieved with great effort and sacrifice, we would be able peacefully to build a new life and a great country.
Alas, this hope has not yet been fulfilled. Stability has come to resemble stagnation. Society has frozen. Although hope still lives. Lives on even here, in the Khamovniky courtroom, when I am already nearly 50 years old.
With the coming of a new President, and since that time more than two years have already passed, many of my fellow citizens once again found hope. Hope that Russia will yet become a modern country with a developed civil society. A society free from the arbitrariness of bureaucrats, free from corruption, free from injustice and lawlessness.
It is clear that this could not happen by itself and in one day. But to pretend that we are developing when we are in actual fact standing still, or slipping backwards, even if it is under a cloak of a noble conservatism, is no longer possible, and simply dangerous for the country.
It is impossible to reconcile oneself to the fact that people who call themselves patriots are so desperately resisting any change that will limit their access to the feeding trough, or their ability to get away with anything. It is enough to remember the fate of the amendments to Article 108 of the Criminal Procedure Code of the Russian Federation concerning the arrest of businessmen or the income declarations of bureaucrats. And yet it is precisely the sabotage of reforms that deprives our country of prospects. This is not patriotism. It is hypocrisy.
I am ashamed to see how people – people that in the past I respected – try to justify the arbitrariness of bureaucrats and lawlessness. They exchange their reputation for a quiet life within the framework of the current system, for privileges and sops.
Fortunately, not everyone is like that, and there are increasingly more people of the other kind.
I am proud of the fact that among thousands of employees at YUKOS, after 7 years of persecution, none have agreed to give false testimony, to sell their soul and conscience.
Dozens of people have been personally threatened, have been cut off from family and friends, and thrown in prison. Some have been tortured. But, even though they lost their health and years of their lives, they preserved what they considered most important, their human dignity.
Those who started this shameful case – [First Deputy Prosecutor General Yuri] Biryukov, [Investigator Salavat] Karimov and others - at that time contemptuously called us “traders”, regarding us as scum, ready to do anything to protect our prosperity and escape prison.
Years have passed. And who turned out to be the scum? Who lied, torture and took hostages for the sake of money, and because they were afraid of the bosses?
And this is what they called a “matter of state”!
I am ashamed for my country.
Your honour, I think we all perfectly understand the significance of our trial extends far beyond the fates of Platon [Lebedev] and myself. And even beyond the fates of all those who have innocently suffered in the course of the reprisals against YUKOS that have taken place on such a huge scale, those I found myself unable to protect, but about whom I have not forgotten. I remember every day.
Let’s ask ourselves, what does the entrepreneur, the top class organizer of production, or simply an educated, creative individual, think today looking at our trial and knowing that the result is absolutely predictable?
The obvious conclusion a thinking person would come to is chilling in its simplicity: the bureaucratic and law enforcement machine can do whatever it wants. There is no right of private property. No person who conflicts with the “system” has any rights whatsoever.
Even when enshrined in law, rights are not protected by the courts. Because the courts are either also afraid, or are part of the “system”. Does it come as a surprise that thinking people do not strive to realize themselves here in Russia?
Who will modernize the economy? Prosecutors? Police officers? The security services? We have already attempted modernization like that and it did not work. We were able to build a hydrogen bomb, and even a rocket, but we still can’t make our own first rate modern televisions, our own cheap, competitive, modern cars, our own modern mobile phones, as well as a whole lot of other modern goods.
But then we have learnt how to put on a beautiful display of obsolete models of foreign companies, produced here in Russia, while the rare creations of Russian inventors, if they do find application, find it not here in our own country but abroad
Whatever happened to last year’s presidential initiatives in the realm of industrial policy? Have they been buried? But they offered a real chance to kick the oil addiction. Why buried? Because to put them into practice the country needs not just one Korolev, and not just one Sakharov, under the protective wing of an all-powerful Beria and his million-strong host, but hundreds of thousands of Korolevs and Sakharovs, protected by just and comprehensible laws and independent courts that will give life to these laws, and not just a place on a dusty shelf, as happened in its day to the Constitution of 1937.
Where are these Korolevs and Sakharovs today? Have they left the country? Are they getting ready to leave? Or have they gone again into “internal emigration”? Or have they hidden themselves among the grey bureaucrats so as not to be crushed by the “system”?
We, citizens of Russia, patriots of our country, can and must change this.
How can Moscow become a financial centre for Eurasia if our prosecutors, in a public trial, directly and unambiguously, just like 20 or 50 years ago, demand that the striving to increase production and capitalization of a private company be classified as a criminal, mercenary objective, for which a person ought to be locked up for 14 years?
If under one court sentence a company that paid more taxes than anyone else in the country – YUKOS paid more taxes than any other Russian company with the exception of Gazprom – turns out not to have fully paid its taxes; and under a second court sentence, the one now being proposed, it is clear, there has been no object for taxation at all since it was all stolen?
A country that tolerates a situation where the bureaucratic and law enforcement machine in its own interests and not at all in the interests of the country holds tens, if not hundreds of thousands, of talented entrepreneurs, managers, and ordinary people in prison, instead of, and together with, criminals, is a sick country.
A state that destroys its own best companies that were ready to become global champions; a state that holds its own citizens in contempt, a state that trusts only bureaucrats and the security services, is a sick state.
Hope is the main engine of major reforms and transformations, the guarantor of their success. If hope dies, if deep disappointment takes its place, then who and what will be able to lead our Russia out of a new stagnation?
I do not exaggerate when I say that millions of eyes throughout all Russia and the whole world are watching the outcome of this trial.
They are watching with hope, the hope that Russia will after all become a country of freedom and the law, a country where the law will be above the bureaucrat.
Where supporting opposition parties will cease to be a cause for repression.
Where the security services will protect the people and the law, and not the bureaucracy from the people and from the law.
Where human rights will no longer depend on the mood of the tsar, whether good or evil.
Where, on the contrary, government will be truly dependent on the citizens, and the courts will depend only on the law and on God. Call this conscience, if you prefer.
I believe that this is how it will be.
I am far from being an ideal person, but I am a person with an idea. For me, as for anybody, it is hard to live in prison, and I do not want to die here.
But if I have to, I will have no hesitation. What I believe in is worth dying for. I think I have shown this.
And my respected opponents? What do you believe in? That the bosses are always right? In money? In the impunity of the “system”? I don’t know. It’s for you to decide.
In your hands lies far more than just the fates of two people. Here and now the fate of every citizen of our country is being decided. People on the streets of Moscow and Chita, Petersburg and Tomsk, and other cities and settlements, who do not count on becoming victims of police lawlessness. Those who have set up their own business, built a house, achieved success and want to pass it on to their children, and not to raiders in uniform. And finally, those who want honourably to perform their duty for a fair wage, not expecting to be fired at any moment by corrupt bosses on any pretext.
This is not about Platon and me. At least, not only about us. It is about the hopes of many citizens of our country. About the hope that tomorrow the courts will be able to protect their rights, if yet again some bureaucrats or other get it into their heads brazenly and demonstratively to violate these rights.
I know there are people (I have named them during the trial) who want to keep us in prison. To keep us in prison forever! Indeed, they do not even try to hide it very much, publicly talking about the existence of a “bottomless” case file.
Why don’t they hide it? Because they want to show that they are above the law, and they will always accomplish “what they have thought up”. For the time being, it’s true, they have accomplished the opposite. They have made a symbol out of us, out of two ordinary people, a symbol of the struggle with arbitrariness. That is what they have managed to do. It is not our merit. It is theirs. But for them a conviction is essential, to avoid becoming “scapegoats”.
I want to hope that the court will withstand their psychological pressure. And pressure there will be, we all know that, just as we know through whom it will come.
I want an independent judiciary to become a reality and the norm in my country. I want the phrase born in Soviet times, about “the most just court system in the world”, to stop sounding as ironic today as it did in those days. I do not want us to leave as an inheritance for our children and grandchildren the very dangerous symbols of totalitarianism.
Your Honour, I am ready to understand that it is not easy for you, perhaps it is even terrifying, and I wish you courage.
Everyone understands that your verdict in this case, whatever it will be, will become part of the history of Russia. Moreover, it will form the development of the country for future generations. And you understand this better than many. All the names - those of the prosecutors, and of the judges - will go down in history, as did the names of those who took part in the infamous Soviet trials.
Mikhail Khodorkovsky's speech is reproduced from Open Democracy.
Picture: The Economist
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