Russia raids homes of Kremlin critic Khodorkovsky's staff


Mikhail Khodorkovsky

RUSSIAN investigators on Tuesday raided the apartments of employees of Kremlin critic Mikhail Khodorkovsky's Open Russia group, less than two weeks after Moscow charged the former tycoon with murder.

Members of the government's Investigative Committee searched the homes of the ex-Yukos oil company chief's spokeswoman Kulle Pispanen and employees of his opposition group.

The searches appeared tied to a 2003 case which led to the criminal prosecution of one of Russia's most powerful oligarchs and the dismemberment of Yukos which have become defining events in the presidency of Vladimir Putin.

The Investigative Committee said in a statement that it was checking the circumstances of "money laundering" of Yukos executives by "searching the homes and work places of businessmen and other persons financed from abroad" from accounts possibly controlled by Khodorkovsky and his associates.

The committee said it is also checking the information provided in a Paris appeals court last week by shareholders of now-bankrupt Yukos, who want Russia to cover their losses and convinced the court to back the freezing of Russian assets in France.

It was not clear from the statement whether the home raids were somehow connected to the court ruling, but Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov confirmed that Russia is "taking legal action to protect Russia's interests".

Khodorkovsky ridiculed the raids and vowed that his organisation, which he set up in an attempt to help nurture civil society and rouse Russians against the Kremlin, would press ahead with its work.

"This is rather funny, especially taking into consideration that none of Open Russia's current employees and activists worked at Yukos," he said on Echo of Moscow radio, noting that some of his staff were children in the 1990s.

Liberal lawyer Pavel Chikov said the apartments of at least seven people had been searched including those of several Saint Petersburg-based Open Russia coordinators.

Writing on Twitter, he said the raids made little sense as a statute of limitations for the alleged crime had expired.

- 'I was 12' -

Mikhail Roskin, a 24-year-old Open Russia employee based in Saint Petersburg, said investigators searched the apartment of his relatives.

The link to the 2003 case was dubious at best, he added. "I was 12 then," he told AFP. "Back then I cared about everything except Khodorkovsky or politics."

Earlier this month Russian investigators charged the former oil tycoon in absentia with organising the 1998 murder of a mayor in Siberia, a move supporters say is aimed at silencing the self-exiled Kremlin critic.

Khodorkovsky was also charged with the attempted murders of two other people.

Khodorkovsky, 52, spent a decade in prison on charges of tax evasion, fraud and embezzlement which he and his supporters say were trumped up in revenge for the business magnate's political ambitions.

Khodorkovsky was unexpectedly pardoned by Putin in 2013 and flown out of the country.

He has slammed Putin's system and said he was ready, if called upon, to lead Russia in times of crisis.

As investigators announced they planned to press new charges against Khodorkovsky, the Putin critic called a news conference in London, which was broadcast online, calling the Kremlin's agenda "shitty" and saying revolution in Russia was inevitable.

Open Russia this month published a report on allegations by Spanish prosecutors of links between a Russian crime boss and several Putin allies, including the head of the Investigative Committee Alexander Bastrykin.

Tuesday's raids come after armed police searched the offices of Open Russia in April, during Putin's marathon annual phone-in session.

Activists have complained that after the seizure of Crimea from Ukraine last year, Russian authorities have further tightened the screws, leaving critics with few outlets to express their disagreement with Kremlin policies.



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