March 3, 2009

Yukos founder brought to trial

The founder of former Russian energy giant Yukos and a business partner were in court Tuesday for hearings in a multibillion-dollar embezzlement case.

Russian oil companies Tomskneft and Samaraneftegaz have charged Yukos founder Mikhail Khodorkovsky and Platon Lebedev with embezzling about $25 billion and laundering about $7.5 billion, RIA Novosti reported Tuesday.

The two are already serving eight-year sentences on theft and tax evasion charges. Khodorkovsky has long maintained the charges against him are politically motivated.

As the closed-door hearings began, supporters gathered outside the Khamovniki District Court in Moscow, tossing carnations toward the defendants, the report said.

About 300 policemen were on hand to disperse crowds. Before walking into court, Khodorkovsky shouted, it's a disgrace!

The trial could last six months and involve 200 witnesses, Lebedev's lawyer Yelena Liptser said.

Yukos, the country's largest oil producer, collapsed when the government sold its assets to pay debts.

State-run oil company Rosneft bought most of the company before it declared bankruptcy in 2006, the report said.

Although charged with embezzling $25 billion, the companies claim the defendants owe them $50 billion, which their lawyers have called ridiculous.