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.
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 an 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”.
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.
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.