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Last Updated: Wednesday, 19 May, 2004, 21:08 GMT 22:08 UK
Russia prepares for tycoon trials
By Steven Rosenberg
BBC correspondent in Moscow

The first thing you notice as you walk into Moscow's Meshchansky Courthouse is the smell.

Platon Lebedev - due in court on Thursday
Mr Lebedev's arrest marked the start of the Yukos affair
The oppressive odour of fresh paint fills your lungs. Everything here in this rather grey, run-down Soviet-era building is being spruced up - from the stained walls, to the dusty staircases.

And just in time. Meshchansky is about to become the centre of attention. It is the setting for two of the most controversial trials in recent Russian history.

First in the dock is the billionaire banker Platon Lebedev, due to appear on Thursday.

A key shareholder in the embattled Yukos oil giant, Mr Lebedev was arrested last July and charged with a string of economic crimes, including fraud, embezzlement and tax evasion.

His detention marked the start of the Yukos affair.

This regime will go after anybody who dares to be independent even in the slightest form
Garry Kasparov
Since then Russia's largest oil company has come under sustained pressure from prosecutors.

Last October the former chief executive of Yukos, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, was seized at gunpoint and put behind bars.

Mr Khodorkovsky - Russia's richest tycoon - faces similar charges to Mr Lebedev.

His trial is expected to start later this summer.

'Political motivation'

At Meshchansky, an official unlocks door number 20 and ushers me inside.

Mikhail Khodorkovsky
Mr Khodorkovsky is due to be tried later this year
At one end of the room there is a cage that looks like something out of a zoo.

Behind the thick iron bars is a low wooden bench. This, I am told, is where Platon Lebedev will be sitting during his trial.

On a podium at the other end is a wooden table with three imposing chairs for the judges. A Russian double-headed eagle stares down from the wall.

Prosecutors maintain that both Mr Lebedev and Mr Khodorkovsky committed economic crimes.

But their supporters believe the cases against them are political. And they blame the Kremlin.

Agreement

"This case is a litmus test of Vladimir Putin's determination to crush independent business in Russia," chess champion Garry Kasparov told me.

He heads a liberal group called Committee 2008.

The big concern that everybody has is that this case will be extended into investigation of other companies
Chris Weafer
Chief strategist Alfa Bank
"This regime will go after anybody who dares to be independent even in the slightest form," he said.

Before his arrest, Mikhail Khodorkovsky was certainly acting independent. He was lobbying parliament, urging changes to government policy - and even hinting of political ambitions.

The Kremlin was not impressed.

When Vladimir Putin came to power in 2000, he had reached an agreement with the oligarchs - keep out of politics, and you will keep out of trouble.

Mr Khodorkovsky appeared to be breaking the deal.

Payback time

The Kremlin denies any involvement in the Yukos case. And the Russian authorities maintain that they are not plotting to subjugate big business, or launch any kind of witch hunt against the country's richest tycoons.

But foreign investors are nervous.

"The big concern that everybody has is that this case will be extended into investigation of other companies," said Chris Weafer, chief strategist at Alfa Bank.

"Investors will be watching these cases very closely to make sure they are cases concerning Yukos only."

Most Russians, though, have little sympathy for tycoons who are in trouble with the law.

The country's billionaires are viewed by many people here as robber barons, who struck rich in the 1990s at the expense of the majority of the population.

In the eyes of the public, now it is payback time.




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