Russian authorities re-open file on twenty year old murder case, accusing Khodorkovsky of the crime
News that the Russian authorities are pressing murder charges against the former Russian oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky provokes many thoughts.
Rumours that Khodorkovsky employed hitmen to dispose of his enemies have circulated for many years.
There is no doubt some of Khodorkovsky’s enemies did meet untimely deaths. A particularly notorious case is the one of Vladimir Petukhov, the mayor of Nefteyugansk, who was killed in 1998 after publicly insisting that Khodorkovsky's oil company Yukos pay its taxes.
It seems that the case the Russian authorities are now attempting to bring against Khodorkovsky may relate to this case.
Though the rumours that Petukhnov was killed on Khodorkovsky’s orders have always been there, they have never resulted in a prosecution of Khodorkovsky because no witnesses have ever come forward to confirm them.
The central figure in the case is a man called Aleksey Pichugin.
Pichugin is a person who sounds like a character from an action film.
He was born in 1962 but trained as a security official for the USSR’s Ministry of Internal Affairs.
In 1986 he joined the KGB. From 1987 to 1994 he continued to serve first the KGB and - after the KGB’s dissolution in December 1991 - its various successor agencies, finally retiring from state service in 1994.
Whilst carrying out this work Pichugin apparently received awards for irreproachable service to the USSR and Russia.
After ending his service Pichugin began to work for Khodorkovsky, first as an official in the security office of Khodorkovsky’s Bank Menatep, and after 1998 as head of the Internal Economic Security Department of Khodorkovsky’s oil company Yukos.
It seems Pichugin’s work as a security man for Yukos was unconventional to say the least.
The Russian authorities say he ran Yukos's secret executions division, essentially as Yukos’s in-house hitman. According to them he either carried out or organised the murder of five different people for Yukos, one of them Petukhov.
The Russian authorities say that Pichugin received his orders from Leonid Nevzlin, a major Yukos shareholder and Vice-President who has fled to Israel, putting him beyond the reach of Russian justice.
Pichugin was convicted of murder on two separate occasions. The first was for the murder of two former friends and associates: the husband and wife Sergey and Olga Gorin. The second was for the murder of Petukhov and several other opponents of Khodorkovsky and Yukos.
The murders of Sergey and Olga Gorin and of Petukhov actually have a connection in that the Russian authorities say that it was Sergey Gorin who helped Pichugin find the two men who actually killed Petukhov: Yevgeny Reshetnikov, an ex-paratrooper, and Gennady Tsigelnik, a convicted criminal.
The money Reshetnikov and Tsigelnik were paid for the murder was apparently $10,000.
Pichugin’s conviction in 2005 for the murder of Sergey and Olga Gorin should be considered unsafe. The European Court of Human Rights found that like some of the other cases prosecuted in the early days of the Yukos scandal there were major procedural violations rendering Pichugin’s trial unfair. Unusually, the European Court of Human Rights recommended a re-trial - which however has never happened.
Pichugin’s other conviction in 2006 for the murder of Petukhov and several other people has by contrast never been successfully challenged, and accounts of it suggest it was fair.
Pichugin, Reshetnikov, Tsigelnik and several other people, continue to serve prison sentences for Pichugin’s murder and for other crimes.
Before proceeding further I would point out to those readers who have taken the trouble to read my long study of the Litvinenko case certain obvious parallels in the careers of Aleksey Pichugin - Petukhov’s murderer - and Andrey Lugovoi - Litvinenko’s alleged murderer.
Lugovoi and Pichugin are both former members of the KGB. Both attached themselves in the 1990s to Russian oligarchs - in Lugovoi’s case to Berezovsky, in Pichugin’s case to Khodorkovsky - in each case working as security chiefs for their oligarch bosses’ respective companies - ORT and Yukos. Both men have been convicted by Russian courts of committing crimes for their employers - in Lugovoi’s case of attempting to spring from pre-trial detention Berezovsky’s associate Nikolay Glushkov, in Pichugin’s case of murdering Khodorkovsky’s enemies.
The practice of oligarchs employing former KGB officers was clearly not unusual in Russia in the 1990s, and the cliche “once a KGB man always a KGB man” is obviously untrue.
Though Pichugin’s guilt for Petukhov’s murder is scarcely disputed, up to now there has been no evidence directly linking Khodorkovsky to Petukhov’s murder or to any of the other murders carried out by Pichugin.
If Khodorkovsky had any part in them, he was careful to cover his tracks carefully by giving Pichugin his orders through Nevzlin.
The idea that Yukos might run its own murder division without Khodorkovsky knowing about it might strike most people as bizarre. However that is not evidence, and a court cannot use it.
What appears to have happened is that some or all of the people convicted and serving sentences for Petukhov’s murder have now come forward and confessed their part in the murder and have implicated Khodorkovsky. We do not know who these people are, but it is possible - and perhaps likely - they include Pichugin himself.
This is not unusual in cases of this kind. Up to now Pichugin and the others have protested their innocence, which meant they could not implicate Khodorkovsky in a crime they were denying they had committed.
Years spent in prison however concentrate the mind, and with prospects of a successful appeal gone, and with all those involved still only partly through their (very long) sentences, it is hardly surprising if they have now come to doubt the wisdom of their continued silence and denial of guilt.
It is not impossible that they also feel angry and betrayed by Khodorkovsky, who has done nothing to help them since his own release in December 2013.
It would not be surprising therefore if they are now looking to do a deal to get themselves released by implicating their former chief.
Since we do not know what their evidence is, we cannot assess it. Besides there must always be a concern that the evidence of persons convicted of murder who are serving long prison sentences is unreliable. That was a point Khodorkovsky’s lawyer made at a recent court hearing and it is a valid one.
In the West meanwhile it can be taken as read that the new proceedings will be denounced as state persecution of Khodorkovsky.
All I will say about that is that opinion in the West was once not so dismissive of the possibility that Khodorkovsky might have people killed.
I said Pichugin is like a character from an action film. As it happens in 2004 - shortly after Khodorkovsky’s arrest - an action film called the Bourne Supremacy appeared in cinemas around the world.
The plot of the film concerns a Russian oligarch who employs a hitman to kill his enemies. The hitman is a serving officer of the FSB . One of the oligarch’s victims - killed before the start of the film but not by the hitman - is an honest Russian politician and anti-corruption fighter
This fictional Russian oligarch not only bears a striking resemblance to Khodorkovsky, but like Khodorkovsky his wealth comes from oil. His company is called “Pekos”, which of course sounds very like the name of Khodorkovsky’s company Yukos. Though the highly fictional character of the hitman scarcely resembles Pichugin, like Pichugin he has a background in Russia’s state security service.
As many have noticed, the allusions to Khodorkovsky and Yukos are clear - even if the film’s makers today prefer to suppress the fact.
Though the Bourne Supremacy came out after Khodorkovsky’s arrest, the date of its release means that its script must have been written before. As such the film bears witness to how Khodorkovsky was regarded by at least some people in the West before his arrest.
It is almost inconceivable that the authorities in Switzerland - the country where Khodorkovsky now lives - will extradite him to Russia. The chances of his standing trial in Russia for the murder of Petukhov or any of the other murders is therefore non-existent.
No doubt we will soon however know what Pichugin or whoever is now giving evidence against him is saying. At that point we can start to form opinions about it.