In 2014, the Russian government surprised the world by releasing two high-profile prisoners of conscience and former Yukos executives, Mikhail Khodorkovsky and Platon Lebedev, each of whom who had been imprisoned on what were widely recognized to be false criminal charges. Though this was in part an act of goodwill on the eve of the Sochi Olympics, it also gave hope that Russia was signaling a turn towards an improved respect for the rule of law. However, since the start of those Olympics, it has been clear that such hopes were ill-founded. One only need to look to the current treatment of the first Yukos employee arrested, Alexei Pichugin, and that of the scores of Yukos officials who managed to flee Russia, to see that Mr. Putin's tactics remain an example of the legal nihilism that characterize Russian justice and are part of a greater pattern of feigned rapprochement.
Today Mikhail Khodorkovsky is a free man. He is free not only in the narrow sense of having been freed from illegitimate imprisonment. He possesses the deeper freedom that comes from having met the test of conscience and courage. This deeper freedom comes when someone faces unjust persecution at the hands of a corrupt judiciary and authoritarian state and nonetheless maintains their integrity and principles. Like other prisoners of conscience before him - men like Natan Sharansky and Nelson Mandela - Mikhail has shown a deep determination to fight for a more just and democratic world. Furthermore, he has been willing to pay a high personal price for his ideals. Mr. Khodorkovsky’s demonstration of character and determination has won the respect of his fellow Russians and millions of others around the world.
We are thrilled by the news this morning that Mikhail Khodorkovsky could shortly be pardoned and freed after 10 years of unjust incarceration. The Lantos Foundation has been actively protesting his political prosecution, rigged conviction, and continued incarceration throughout this shameful miscarriage of justice. We also welcome the fast track progress of an amnesty bill in the Russian Duma that could lead to the release of the young women of Pussy Riot and the lifting of charges against the Green Peace activists. These are all positive steps and we hope they are the harbinger of more reforms to come.
The announcement this morning indicated that Mr. Khodorkovsky would be released soon. We are cautiously optimistic, but we cannot celebrate this progress, until the deeds match the words. We hope that before the Holidays Mikhail is safely reunited with his loving family and amnesty is granted to the many other political prisoners in Russia.
As the world’s eyes turn to Russia for the upcoming Sochi Olympics, we hope that these steps towards reform and compassion will prove to be more than short-lived public relations gestures. Our hope for the people of Russia is that these actions represent a genuine desire to return to greater democracy and to build a society where the rule of law is respected, robust civil society is celebrated, and people are free to express themselves.
In this holy season, the freeing of Mikhail Khodorkovsky gives many of us cause to celebrate and to hope for a coming year with greater peace and goodwill towards all people.
Today is the 50th birthday of Mikhail Khodorkovsky and tragically, once again, he will spend this day in a Russian prison. It has been nearly 10 years since Mr. Khodorkovsky was unjustly imprisoned for the “crime” of daring to challenge the corruption and authoritarianism of Vladimir Putin. During the past decade, the dangerous and criminal nature of Putin’s regime has been unmasked for the entire world to see. From the murder of the crusading lawyer Sergei Magnitsky while in official custody, to the stolen Duma elections of 2011, to the harassment and persecution of civil society organizations dedicated to human rights and democracy, to the wholesale corruption of the legal system, it is clear that democracy and basic human rights are scarce commodities in Putin’s Russia.
Millions of people now recognize Mikhail Khodorkovsky as a man who had the foresight to see what was happening to his country and the courage to try and stop it. It is vital that people of goodwill stand in solidarity with Mikhail on this important day. He has spent 10 long years languishing in prison but is due to be released in October of 2014. We call upon governments and citizens around the world to demand that the Russian government honor his release date and set this brave man free. Through letters, calls, social media, and public demonstrations we must make it clear to Putin that the world is watching.
Lantos Foundation president Katrina Lantos Swett said, "Mikhail Khodorkovsky was willing to stand up for Russian democracy and freedom and has paid a very heavy price for his courage. Now it is time for those who support these values to stand up for him."
Putin continues manipulation of judicial system
CONCORD, NH – Following the Russian Supreme Court’s ruling to reject Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s appeal of his second conviction and 13 year prisonsentence, Katrina Lantos Swett, President of the Lantos Foundation for Human Rights & Justice, issued the following statement:
“It is not surprising that one of Putin’s first actions upon his return to the Russian Presidency was to continue his manipulation of the Judiciary and orchestrate the rejection of Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s latest appeal. This action, coupled with the blatant election theft he and his party just orchestrated, provides ominous insight into what lies ahead for the Russian people in the next six years under Putin’s tight-fisted reign. We can only hope that the currents of change coursing among the Russian populace can slowly push Russia in the direction of genuine justice and a legitimate system that obeys the rule of law. It seems this is the only force that could be strong enough to persuade Putin to finally allow the Russian people, including Mikhail Khodorkovsky, to have the voice and freedoms they so richly need and deserve.”
As you know, we have been active on the issue of rule of law and democracy in Russia for years. We recently released a link to our mini-documentary and an op/ed highlighting the case of Russia's most prominent political prisoner, Mikhail Khodorkovsky.
We want to make you aware that in the wake of Russia's elections yesterday, The New York Times is reporting that outgoing President Dimitri Medvedev has ordered the prosecutor-general to review the legality of Mr. Khodorkovsky's conviction along with some 30 other cases. We think it is not a coincidence, as Mikhail's release has been one of the key demands of the democracy protesters.
While we do not want to be naively optimistic, we hope this is a sign that the Kremlin is prepared to make meaningful moves in the direction of reform. If so, we welcome it. There can be no doubt that the release of Mikhail Khodorkovsky has to be part of any move toward true democracy in Russia.
I can recall October 2003. My last day as a free man. Several weeks after my arrest, I was informed that president Putin had decided: I was going to have to “slurp gruel” for 8 years. It was hard to believe that back then.
Seven years have gone by already since that day. Seven years – quite a long stretch of time, and all the more so - when you’ve
spent it in jail. All of us have had time to reassess and rethink many things.
Judging by the prosecutors’ presentation: “give them 14 years” and “spit on previous court decisions”, over these years they have begun to fear me more, and to respect the law - even less.
The first time around, they at least went through the effort of first repealing the judicial acts that stood in their way. Now - they’ll just leave them be; especially since they would need to repeal not two, but more than 60 decisions.
I do not want to return to the legal side of the case at this time. Everybody who wanted to understand something – has long since understood everything. Nobody is seriously waiting for an admission of guilt from me. It is hardly likely that somebody today would believe me if I were to say that I really did steal all the oil produced by my company.
But neither does anybody believe that an acquittal in the YUKOS case is possible in a Moscow court. Notwithstanding, I want to talk to you about hope. Hope – the main thing in life.
I remember the end of the ’80s of the last century. I was 25 then. Our country was living on hope of freedom, hope that we would be able to achieve happiness for ourselves and for our children.
We lived on this hope. In some ways, it did materialise, in others – it did not. The responsibility for why this hope was not realized all the way, and not for everybody, probably lies on our entire generation, myself included.
I remember too the end of the last decade and the beginning of the present, current one. By then I was 35. We were building the best oil company in Russia. We were putting up sports complexes and cultural centres, laying roads, and resurveying and developing dozens of new fields; we started development of the East Siberian reserves and were introducing new technologies. In short, - we were doing all those things that Rosneft, which has taken possession of Yukos, is so proud of today.
Thanks to a significant increase in oil production, including as the result of our successes, the country was able to take advantage of a favourable oil situation. We felt hope that the period of convulsions and unrest – was behind us at last, and that, in the conditions of stability that had been achieved with great effort and sacrifice, we would be able to peacefully build ourselves a new life, a great country.
Alas, this hope too has yet to be justified. Stability has come to look like stagnation. Society has stopped in its tracks. Although hope still lives. It lives on even here, in the Khamovnichesky courtroom, when I am already just this side of 50 years old.
With the coming of a new President (and more than two years have already passed since that time), hope appeared once again for many of my fellow citizens too. Hope that Russia would yet become a modern country with a developed civil society. Free from the arbitrary behaviour of officials, free from corruption, free from unfairness and lawlessness.
It is clear that this can not happen all by itself, or in one day. But to pretend that we are developing, while in actuality, - we are merely standing in one place or sliding backwards, even if it is behind the cloak of noble conservatism, - is no longer possible. Impossible and simply dangerous for the country.
It is not possible to reconcile oneself with the notion that people who call themselves patriots so tenaciously resist any change that impacts their feeding trough or ability to get away with anything. It is enough to recall art. 108 of the Code of Criminal Procedure of the Russian Federation - arresting businessmen for filing of tax returns by bureaucrats. And yet it is precisely the sabotage of reforms that is depriving our country of prospects. This is not patriotism, but rather hypocrisy.
I am ashamed to see how certain persons - in the past, respected by me - are attempting to justify unchecked bureaucratic behaviour and lawlessness. They exchange their reputation for a life of ease, privileges and sops.
Luckily, not all are like that, and there are ever more of the other kind.
It makes me proud to know that even after 7 years of persecutions, not a single one of the thousands of YUKOS employees has agreed to become a false witness, to sell their soul and conscience.
Dozens of people have personally experienced threats, have been cut off from family, and have been thrown in jail. Some have been tortured. But, even after losing their health and years of their lives, people have still kept the thing they deemed to be most important, - human dignity.
Those who started this shameful case, - Biryukov, Karimov and others, - have contemptuously called us “entrepreneurs”
[«kommersanty»], regarding us as low-lifes, capable of anything just to protect our prosperity and avoid prison.
The years have passed. So who are the low-lifes now? Who is it that have lied, tortured, and taken hostages, all for the sake of money and out of cowardice before their bosses?
And this they called “the sovereign’s business” [«gosudarevoye delo»]!
Shameful. I am ashamed for my country.
I think all of us understand perfectly well – the significance of our trial extends far beyond the scope of my fate and Platon’s, and even the fates of all those who have guiltlessly suffered in the course of the sweeping massacre of YUKOS, those I found myself unable to protect, but about whom I remember every day.
Let us ask ourselves: what must be going through the head of the entrepreneur, the high-level organiser of production, or simply any ordinary educated, creative person, looking today at our trial and knowing that its result is absolutely predictable?
The obvious conclusion a thinking person can make is chilling in its stark simplicity: the siloviki bureaucracy can do anything. There is no right of private property ownership. A person who collides with “the system” has no rights whatsoever.
Even though they are enshrined in the law, rights are not protected by the courts. Because the courts are either also afraid, or are themselves a part of “the system”. Should it come as a surprise to anyone then that thinking people do not aspire to selfrealisation here, in Russia?
Who is going to modernise the economy? Prosecutors? Policemen? Chekists? We already tried such a modernization - it did not work. We were able to build a hydrogen bomb, and even a missile, but we still can not build – our own good, modern television, our own inexpensive, competitive, modern automobile, our own modern mobile phone and a whole pile of other modern goods as well.
But then we have learnt how to beautifully display others’ obsolete models produced in our country and an occasional creation of Russian inventors, which, if they ever do find a use, it will certainly be in some other country.
Whatever happened with last year’s presidential initiatives in the realm of industrial policy? Have they been buried? They offer the real chance to kick the oil addiction.
Why? Because what the country needs is not one Korolev, and not one Sakharov under the protective wing of the all-powerful Beria and his million-strong armed host, but hundreds of thousands of “korolevs” and “sakharovs”, under the protection of fair and comprehensible laws and independent courts, which will give these laws life, and not just a place on a dusty shelf, as they did in their day - with the Constitution of 1937.
Where are these “korolevs” and “sakharovs” today? Have they left the country? Are they preparing to leave? Have they once again gone off into internal emigration? Or taken cover amongst the grey bureaucrats in order not to fall under the steamroller of“the system”?
We can and must change this.
How is Moscow going to become the financial centre of Eurasia if our prosecutors, “just like” 20 and 50 years ago, are directly and unambiguously calling in a public trial for the desire to increase the production and market capitalisation of a private company - to be ruled a criminally mercenary objective, for which a person ought to be locked up for 14 years? Under one sentence a company that paid more tax than anyone else, except Gazprom, but still underpaid taxes; and with the second sentence it’s obvious that there’s nothing to tax since the taxable item was stolen.
A country that tolerates a situation where the siloviki bureaucracy holds tens and even hundreds of thousands of talented entrepreneurs, managers, and ordinary people in jail in its own interests, instead of and together with criminals, - this is a sick country.
A state that destroys its best companies, which are ready to become global champions; a country that holds its own citizens in contempt, trusting only the bureaucracy and the special services – is a sick state.
Hope – the main engine of big reforms and transformations, the guarantor of their success. If hope fades, if it comes to be supplanted by profound disillusionment, - who and what will be able to lead our Russia out of the new stagnation?
I will not be exaggerating if I say that millions of eyes throughout all of Russia and throughout the whole world are watching for the outcome of this trial.
They are watching with the hope that Russia will after all become a country of freedom and of the law, where the law will be above the bureaucratic official.
Where supporting opposition parties will cease being a cause for reprisals.
Where the special services will protect the people and the law, and not the bureaucracy from the people and the law.
Where human rights will no longer depend on the mood of the tsar. Good or evil.
Where, on the contrary, the power will truly be dependent on the citizens, and the court – only on law and God. Call this conscience - if you prefer.
I believe, this - is how it will be.
I am not at all an ideal person, but I am - a person with an idea. For me, as for anybody, it is hard to live in jail, and I do not want to die there.
But if I have to - I will not hesitate. The things I believe in are worth dying for. I think I have proven this.
And you opponents? What do you believe in? That the bosses are always right? Do you believe in money? In the impunity of“the system”?
There is much more than just the fates of two people in your hands. Right here and right now, the fate of every citizen of our country is being decided. Those who, on the streets of Moscow and Chita, Peter and Tomsk, and other cities and settlements, are not counting on becoming victims of police lawlessness, who have set up a business, built a house, achieved success and want to pass it on to their children, not to raiders in uniform, and finally, - those who want to honourably carry out their duty for a fair wage, not expecting that they can be fired at any moment by corrupt bosses under just about any pretext.
This is not about me and Platon – at any rate, not only about us. It is about hope for many citizens of Russia. About hope that tomorrow, the court will be able to protect their rights, if yet some other bureaucrats-officials get it into their head to brazenly and demonstratively violate these rights.
I know, there are people, I have named them in the trial, who want to keep us in jail. To keep us there forever! Indeed, they do not even conceal this, publicly reminding everyone about the existence of a “bottomless” case file.
They want to show: they – are above the law, they will always accomplish whatever they might “think up”. So far they have achieved the opposite: out of ordinary people they have created a symbol of the struggle with arbitrariness. But for them, a conviction is essential, so they would not become “scapegoats”.
I want to hope that the court will stand up to their psychological pressure. We all 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 from the Soviet times about “the most just court in the world” to stop sounding just as ironic today as they did back then. I want us not to leave the dangerous symbols of a totalitarian system as an inheritance for our children and grandchildren.
Everybody understands that your verdict in this case - whatever it will be – is going to become part of the history of Russia. Furthermore, it is going to form it for the future generation. All the names - those of the prosecutors, and of the judges - will remain in history, just like they have remained in history after the infamous Soviet trials.
Your Honour, I can imagine perfectly well that this must not be very easy at all for you - perhaps even frightening – and I wish you courage!
Statement from Katrina Lantos Swett, President of the Lantos Foundation for Human Rights and Justice
“The conviction and sentencing of Mikhail Khodorkovsky on false and absurd charges is disturbing evidence of a return to the ‘bad old days’ in Russia. Khodorkovsky is a victim of a political prosecution directed by Vladimir Putin in an effort to punish and silence one of his most fearless and forceful critics.
Many of us had high hopes that President Medvedev would take meaningful steps to reverse the decline in respect for human rights and the rule of law that has been so evident in Russia in recent years. Unfortunately the outcome of the Khodorkovsky/Lebedev trial has dashed those hopes. Furthermore the Russian Foreign Ministry’s statement that outsiders should ‘mind their own business’ in the Khodorkovsky matter is reminiscent of the Soviet days when efforts to uphold international human rights commitments were attacked as an intrusion on Russia’s sovereignty.
The Lantos Foundation calls on governments, human rights organizations, and individuals around the world speak up against this legal travesty. Putin needs to know that while he may be able to control the Russian judiciary, he cannot protect himself from being properly convicted in the court of public opinion for this clear abuse of power. The verdict of history will find that Mikhail Khodorkovsky was a man who came to recognize the inestimable value of true democracy, human rights, and transparency, and he was willing to put his freedom and his life on the line to defend these values. As for Vladimir Putin, unless he changes course, his reputation and legacy—like those of others before him—will be found on the ash heap of history.”
by Katrina Lantos Swett
Today, as expected, the judge in Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s second show trial returned a “guilty” verdict. This result was pre-determined long ago by forces at the very heart of power in Russia. These forces have been in the driver’s seat of this judicial persecution since the very beginning.
Although the verdict was a foregone conclusion, it has been remarkable to watch the growing embarrassment and discomfort of both the judge and the prosecution as this trial descended into a true theatre of the absurd. The charges are ridiculous, the evidence laughable, and the only one convicted by this “guilty” verdict is Russian justice. Indeed the unprecedented decision of the judge to expel the press from the courtroom during the reading of the verdict is tantamount to an admission of his own sense of guilt and shame at presiding over this kangaroo court.
The rap sheet against Russian rule of law is already long and shameful. It includes a business community that has been blackmailed and intimidated, 150 slain journalists, human rights activists who are routinely harassed and threatened, young men brutalized in the armed forces, and many others.
Mikhail Khodorkovsky loves his country and believed in its future which is why he wanted to use his power and influence to work for a Russia that was fully democratic and modern. A Russia with bona fide political opposition, a truly free press, and a business community that was transparent and socially responsible. He has paid a heavy price for pursuing these goals and he now sits in prison as Russia’s most prominent and outspoken political prisoner.
During my recent visit to Moscow, I met with numerous human rights leaders who spoke of the growing dread and intimidation in their country. They emphasized the importance of governments and groups in the West continuing to shine a bright spotlight on the increasing
authoritarianism and corruption in that country. Pushing a “reset” button on US/Russian relations cannot be an excuse for turning a blind eye to outrages such as the persecution and wrongful conviction of Mikhail Khodorkovsky and many others. If Russia is to be a country that we can trust to abide by its treaty obligations, if it is to be a place where businesses can invest with confidence, if it is to be a country where its young people have hope and optimism for their future, then it must be a country that respects and abides by the rule of law. A good place to begin would be with justice for Mikhail Khodorkovsky.
Katrina Lantos Swett is the Founder and President of the Lantos Foundation for Human Rights and Justice.