Russia: rule of law on trial

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."


Respected Court!

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

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.

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.

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.

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

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.

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.

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?

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.

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.

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.

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

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.

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

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.

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.

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.

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.

Your Honour!

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.

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

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.

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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