One more judicial smear job?

The latest, largely anticipated, turn in the story:

Russian tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky says he has been formally accused in a criminal case that, according to associates, involves the 1998 killing of a Siberian mayor that President Vladimir Putin has previously suggested was ordered by the self-exiled Kremlin critic.

Putin freed Mikhail Khodorkovsky and Platon Lebedev early in 2014. A dozen former Yukos executives spent years in jail or prison during the Yukos witch hunt of 2003-14, primarily for refusing to falsely testify against Khodorkovsky. I believe all of them have been freed by now, with one notable exception: Alexey Pichugin. The last, and exceptionally important, Yukos hostage.

Convicted of the 1998 murder of the mayor of Nefteyugansk in two dubious trials micromanaged by security services, prosecutors and investigators, Pichugin is serving a life sentence for his staunch refusal to name Mikhail Khodorkovsky as the man who ordered the mayor of the oil town to be killed. In 2012, the European Court for human rights (ECHR) ruled that Pichugin’s first trial was unfair; his second petition has been communicated to the Russian government. In its new assault on Khodorkovsky, Moscow will probably seek to portray Pichugin, a former head of security at a Yukos company, as the person who gave the direct order to the hitman, and Khodorkovsky as the mastermind and beneficiary of the murder.

People familiar with the case and with the way criminal charges are manufactured in Russia should be able to see through the phoniness of the accusations. However they can leave a false impression on trusting, uninformed minds.

Why now, though? Is the Kremlin unhappy that Khodorkovsky’s Open Russia foundation has translated into Russian a report by a Spanish investigator that sums up years of surveillance and inquiry and points out (once again – but this time, based on actual phone intercepts) links between the Russian mobsters prosecuted in Spain and high-placed Kremlin officials? “You are saying that we’re common gangsters? OK, but we’re going to convict you of murder.”

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