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Analysis & Opinion
15.02.11 Dangerous Appeal
By Tom Balmforth

A Russian opposition leader says he is concerned for the safety of the court aide who alleged yesterday that Judge Viktor Danilkin was forced to find oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky and his business partner Platon Lebedev guilty. Natalya Vasilyeva, an aide to judge Danilkin who sentenced the former owner of oil giant Yukos to 14 years in prison, claims that Danilkin was ordered to condemn the pair and was given a pre-written verdict to read out.

“It will be quite dangerous for Vasilyeva to be in Moscow. In the Yukos affair there are huge interests at stake – those of the secret services, [Prime Minister Vladimir] Putin, [Deputy Prime Minister Igor] Sechin. I think really she is in danger,” said Vladimir Ryzhkov, a former independent State Duma deputy and an outspoken Putin critic.

In a lengthy interview with Gazeta.Ru on Monday, Vasilyeva claimed that the Moscow City Court forced Danilkin against his will to pass a guilty verdict in the trial that has long been linked to a 2003 dispute between Putin and Khodorkovsky, when the latter showed political ambition. “I am absolutely sure that the sentence came from the Moscow City Court. And that it was written by the judges of the Moscow City Court. This is obvious,” said Vasilyeva.

Danilkin dismissed the allegations as “slander,” while the Moscow City Court called them a “provocation.” “It is not only pressure on the court, but also a PR move which was clearly planned by someone,” Anna Usacheva, the chief spokesperson for the Moscow City Court, was quoted by local reports as saying.

Supreme Court Head Vyacheslav Lebedev is refusing to comment on the allegations, as he claims that he may have to preside over the case if it is ever appealed in his court. “You can think what you like, but I will tell you one thing: ‘no comment’,” he told journalists. Before it goes to the Supreme Court, it must first be appealed in the Moscow City Court. But Lead Defense Lawyer Vadim Klyuvgant said the defense team can’t prepare for the appeal without the “record of evidence,” which they haven’t had since July 2010.

“It’s a political battle between Putin and Khodorkovsky,” said Sergei Markov, a Duma deputy for the United Russia party, which Prime Minister Vladimir Putin chairs. “It’s difficult to judge what is going on…Whoever one is politically closer to, then that is the person one believes. If you are closer to Putin, then you believe correspondingly that this aide was actually paid to make these statements. But what is a hundred percent certain is that Putin’s group will win this battle, and for political reasons. Firstly, Putin has far more political power. Secondly, Khodorkovsky definitely committed dozens of crimes, which could put him away for 1,000 years. Not one of the oligarchs in the 1990s was able build up billion dollar empires and do this cleanly, without infringing the law,” said Markov.

Vasilyeva, who is no longer accepting calls from journalists, said she spoke out because she became “disappointed” with Russian law. “I wanted to become a judge. And when I saw its internal workings, how it all takes place, then the fairytale that judges only answer to the law and nothing else melted away,” she said on Monday, coinciding with Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov’s trip to the UK, which has spoken out at Russia’s handling of the case.

Kommersant reported this morning that Vasilyeva was a “promising” aide who had a “clear chance” of becoming a judge. Ryzhkov said he is inclined to believe Vasilyeva. “It seems to me that what Natalia Vasilyeva said is a real description of what happened, and I absolutely believe that judge Danilkin was not free to act and made his decisions under pressure,” said Ryzhkov.

The defense lawyer played down Vasilyeva’s interview. “I don’t see any sensation in this interview,” said Klyuvgant. “We ourselves have long said these things and that we will get, as far as it is within our power, an investigation into how the criminal reprisal on Khodorkovsky and Lebedev has been possible.” Klyuvgant said he would not be referring to the Vasilyeva’s interview and would rather call on Danilkin’s testimony.

A Novaya Gazeta journalist who covered the Khodorkovsky case for its 16-month duration said she is prepared to add her signature to Vasilyeva’s interview statement. “We all heard how Danilkin was shouting in his room during the recess in the session. He was shouting at the prosecutors, so that it was audible to some in the hall. The prosecutors had been demanding that the foreign defense specialist be sent out. Danilkin had permitted himself the audacity of not doing so. When a second specialist arrived, prosecutor Lakhtin walked out of the court, and went to his room…and the judge suddenly announced a three hour break and did not leave his room. And we, those left in the court, sat there for three hours imagining what was happening behind that door…And occasionally you could hear the judge talking loudly over the telephone…I don’t know who with,” Vera Chelishcheva, a journalist for Novaya Gazeta, wrote in her LifeJournal blog.
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