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Former Russian oil tycoon to face trial tomorrow

FROM a tiny cell in one of Moscow's most notorious prisons, the man who was once his country's wealthiest tycoon awaits a trial starting tomorrow.

Former billionaire oil baron Mikhail Khodorkovsky will once again peer out from a courtroom cage and stand trial for alleged financial crimes related to the oil company that he turned into Russia's largest.

When Khodorkovsky was first jailed nearly six years ago, many Russians saw the downfall of the 45-year-old former Communist Youth activist as a victory over the so-called oligarchs who plundered their country's prized industrial assets in the years after the 1991 Soviet collapse.

"Talk to any normal person, a lawyer, an economist, just any normal person, the so-called logic of this case is impossible (to understand)," Vadim Kluvgant, Khodorkovsky's lead lawyer, told The Associated Press in an interview.

Khodorkovsky's troubles began in 2003 when he was arrested at gunpoint on a Siberian airport runway.

Two years later, he was sentenced to eight years in prison for tax evasion and fraud connected to his Yukos oil empire, a company that was once Russia's biggest producer.

Since then, until his transfer last week to Moscow's Matrosskaya Tishina along with longtime business partner Platon Lebedev, he has sat mostly in a Siberian jail some 6,400 kilometers from Moscow.

The Prosecutor General's office announced the new charges two weeks ago, alleging that Khodorkovsky and his partners embezzled and laundered US$25 billion from Yukos and related companies over a six-year period.

Few Russians have sympathy for Khodorkovsky or other oligarchs who got rich through shadowy business deals in the 1990s.

At one point, he was estimated by Forbes magazine to be Russia's richest man with a US$15 billion fortune. But his lawyers say the allegations of a US$25 billion theft border on impossible.


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