“Personally speaking, and I repeat myself, I will not become a political emigrant! My position is clear and I will not accept any deal.” – Khodorkovsky speaking at a press conference in October 2003

As Khodorkovsky was being lauded around the world for his business successes and philanthropic endeavours, he had also become a public irritant and powerful opponent of Kremlin policies. At the same time Yukos had become too attractive an asset for predators to resist expropriating.

Prior to his arrest, Khodorkovsky had become increasingly outspoken on the country’s rampant corruption and on the need to create a more robust civil society. The final straw triggering the decision to arrest him is widely thought to have been during a televised meeting between President Putin and the Russian Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs, in which Khodorkovsky cited statistics on state graft in Russia and publicly challenged the President to address the problem. (Read more under Destruction of Yukos)

On July 2, 2003 Khodorkovsky’s business associate Platon Lebedev was arrested straight from a Moscow hospital where he was receiving treatment. Many perceived this to be a major warning shot fired at Khodorkovsky to force him to flee the country. Khodorkovsky however refused to leave the country he loved.

On October 25, 2003, armed commandos stormed a jet on the tarmac of a Siberian airport and arrested Khodorkovsky at gunpoint. He was ostensibly being arrested to appear as a witness in an investigation underway in Moscow. However, within hours after being delivered to the authorities in Moscow who sought to question him, Khodorkovsky was charged with fraud and tax evasion and he has been in detention ever since.

Khodorkovsky’s October 2003 arrest occurred just prior to Russia’s December 2003 parliamentary election and March 2004 presidential election, eliminating him from active engagement in the political sphere.

First Trial

The first trial of Khodorkovsky and Lebedev began in June 2004 and concluded in May 2005. The defendants were subjected to grave injustices in the interpretation and application of Russian law, while the authorities concurrently pursued an attack on Yukos through the pretext of reassessments of the company’s tax payments. The Meshchansky Court found both men guilty of almost every charge, sentencing them to nine years in prison, a sentence subsequently reduced by the Moscow City Court to eight years during an otherwise unsuccessful appeal process in September 2005.

After the trial, Khodorkovsky was sent to one of the most remote prison colonies in all of Russia, some 6,900 kilometres away from Moscow in the town of Krasnokamensk, close to Russia’s borders with China and Mongolia. The prison is in close proximity to a uranium mine which has contaminated the area with unsafe levels of radioactivity. Lebedev, meanwhile, was sent to a remote prison colony in the town of Kharp, on the Yamalo-Nenets Peninsula, above the Arctic Circle. For both men, the remoteness of their prisons made it extremely difficult for their families and Moscow-based legal counsel to visit them.

Khodorkovsky had always eschewed the lavish lifestyle and extravagance of many of his wealthy peers. Despite this, the Kremlin and its allies began a concerted campaign to smear Khodorkovsky, using his wealth as a means to justify his arrest and to rally public opinion as part of a populist crusade to tame the so-called “oligarchs”.

Second Trial

In 2007, after four years in detention, Khodorkovsky and Lebedev were to become eligible for release on parole under Russian law, having served half of their eight‐year sentences. By then, Yukos had been largely destroyed through bogus tax reassessments, forced bankruptcy proceedings and rigged auctions, with the majority of its assets won over by state-controlled Rosneft. However the Russian authorities still did not want to see Khodorkovsky and Lebedev released. Given their eligibility for parole in 2007, or at the latest upon completion of their eight-year sentences in 2011, new charges were sloppily manufactured and proceedings were instigated against Khodorkovsky and Lebedev to prevent their release.

As was the case for the previous elections, the timing of the new charges, announced in February 2007, ensured that Khodorkovsky was behind bars during the December 2007 parliamentary election and the March 2008 presidential election. In addition to keeping Khodorkovsky isolated from the Russian political sphere, the new charges were intended to stain even further his reputation and to whitewash and distract attention from corrupt and criminal actions committed by high-ranking Russian officials in the destruction of Yukos.

The second trial started in March 2009 at Moscow’s Khamovnichesky Court. Khodorkovsky and Lebedev were found guilty in December 2010. Following a failed appeal in May 2011, their imprisonment was extended to 2016, which precluded their release in 2011 upon completion of their initial eight-year sentences. Khodorkovsky and Lebedev are now serving combined sentences totalling thirteen years, counted from 2003.

As their appeals in Russia have failed, both Khodorkovsky and Lebedev have submitted applications to the European Court of Human Rights highlighting violations committed by Russian authorities in the proceedings against them.

Since the end of the second trial, a relentlessly absurd saga of appeals has unfolded, with proceedings repeatedly unlawfully delayed, or stymied by groundless rulings. After two years of obstruction and delays, a supervisory appeal hearing finally took place at the Moscow City Court on December 20, 2012. Despite the enormous weight of legal and factual arguments undermining it, the appeal judges confirmed the December 2010 guilty verdict. Incredibly, the ruling lacked any thorough judicial analysis of the appellants’ arguments. The hearing did, however, bring forward the scheduled release date of both Khodorkovsky and Lebedev by two years, as a result of 2011 changes to Russian sentencing guidelines.

The International Bar Association’s Human Rights Institute had a full time observer at the second trial and concluded in their September 2011 trial observation report that the proceedings were not fair and were incapable of producing clear proof to sustain the verdict. Similarly, in December 2011 an official inquiry organised by then-President Dmitry Medvedev’s own human rights council identified serious and widespread violations of the law in the second trial, leading the Council to call for an annulment of the verdict. Experts involved in the inquiry categorically rejected the court’s findings of illegality in Yukos’s operations and found no evidence proving allegations of embezzlement or money laundering.

Khodorkovsky’s ongoing detention is widely seen to be representative of the parlous state of the rule of law in modern Russia, symptomatic of deep-rooted legal nihilism by which principles of justice are subverted to the political considerations of the ruling elite.

Prisoner of Conscience

Since Khodorkovsky and Lebedev were arrested in 2003, Amnesty International has continually expressed concern over their treatment in detention. In May 2011, Amnesty International designated them both to be prisoners of conscience, jailed for the non-violent expression of their political beliefs, and called for their release. The position of Amnesty International echoes that of other international NGOs, including Human Rights Watch and Freedom House, as well as world leaders across the globe, in recognising the political nature of the campaign of persecution waged against Khodorkovsky.

Even in detention and under the constant risk of reprisals from the prison authorities, Khodorkovsky has not been deterred from speaking out on the pressing need for change in Russia. From his prison cell he has become a renowned commentator on economic, political and social issues, penning numerous articles in leading national and international publications. He has engaged in written exchanges with famed writers such as Lyudmila Ulitskaya and Boris Akunin, some of which were subsequently published to critical acclaim. Khodorkovsky continues his public engagement to the extent that he can despite his incarceration and despite the risk that his continued presence in the political arena poses to his hopes for release.


For his acclaimed writings and brave commitment to a free and democratic Russia, Khodorkovsky has received or has been nominated for numerous prizes.

Sakharov Prize for Journalism as an Act of Conscience

In December 2011, Khodorkovsky was one of fourteen finalists nominated for the Sakharov Prize for Journalism as an Act of Conscience, for his articles published in Novaya Gazeta. Since 2001, the prize has been awarded to journalists who defend the values of the eminent Soviet nuclear physicist, dissident and human rights activist Andrei Sakharov. Khodorkovsky’s mother, Marina, received an honorary certificate on her son’s behalf.

Dr Rainer Hildebrandt Medal

In December 2010, Khodorkovsky was awarded the Dr Rainer Hildebrandt Medal, an international human rights award in recognition of extraordinary, non-violent commitment to human rights. Khodorkovsky won the award alongside his human rights lawyer, Yuri Schmidt, and Hungarian reformer Imre Pozsgay. The jury for the award includes, amongst others, Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Henry Kissinger, President of Germany Joachim Gauck and former German foreign minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher. In a laudatory speech, Markus Löning, the German government’s human rights commissioner, expressed his respect for Khodorkovsky for standing for a free Russia where human rights have meaning. In a letter to Khodorkovsky, Nobel Literature Prize Laureate Herta Müller underlined that he is imprisoned because “he called for democracy in Russia” and compared his commitment to a peaceful transition with that of Chinese Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Liu Xiaobo.

Newsmaker of the Year

In October 2010, Ekho Mosvky Radio announced the creation of a Newsmaker of the Year Award, giving the title to a different individual for the past twenty years. For 2003, the year of his arrest, the award was attributed to Khodorkovsky. Other recipients included the murdered journalist Anna Politkovskaya for 2006 and Russia’s market reform architect Yegor Gaidar for 1992.

European of the Week

In May 2010, Khodorkovsky was named “European of the week” by Radio France International for his ongoing capacity to force the Kremlin to react, despite his imprisonment since 2003. The award came after the success of a hunger strike by Khodorkovsky, which drew then-President Medvedev’s attention to the disrespect of Russian officials and courts for recent legal reforms. RFI awarded Khodorkovsky this honour again in 2013, following his 50th birthday on June 26.

Znamya Literary Prize

In January 2010, Khodorkovsky received a literary prize for his correspondence with Russian Booker Prize recipient Lyudmila Ulitskaya. The annual prize, which has been awarded by Znamya magazine for more than 20 years, was received by Khodorkovsky’s daughter Anastasia at a ceremony in Moscow. The prize funds were donated to the Podmoskovny Lyceum in Koralovo.