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Second Yukos Billionaire Faces Prison

One by one, prosecutors are closing in on the six billionaires who built their fortunes on the back of Yukos, the nation's biggest oil company.

First they arrested Platon Lebedev, who has spent 15 weeks in Lefortovo prison. Then they hauled Mikhail Khodorkovsky and Leonid Nevzlin in for questioning. After that they conducted armed raids on the homes and offices of Mikhail Brudno and Vladimir Dubov. Now they've turned their attention to Vasily Shakhnovsky.

Prosecutors said Friday they had charged the Yukos-Moskva president with large-scale tax evasion for fraudulently declaring 29 million rubles in deductions between 1998 and 2000. In his tax returns for those years Shakhnovsky claimed he provided consulting services to an offshore company called Status Services Ltd., which prosecutors dispute.

A spokeswoman for the prosecutor's office said Shakhnovsky is charged under article 198 of the Criminal Code, which carries a maximum penalty of five years in prison. He is also charged with falsifying documents and was released only after promising not to leave the city, she added.

Emerging from a four-hour session at the Prosecutor General's Office late Friday, Shakhnovsky denied the charges, calling the whole affair baffling.

"I don't really understand what I falsified, but it seems what is meant is that I filled out my tax declaration incorrectly. The declaration was checked and approved and I underwent frequent tax audits," he said. "I can say in absolute honesty that I have done nothing illegal."

Shakhnovsky, who handles government relations for Yukos, gained a reputation as a wily political strategist in the 1990s. He was Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov's chief of staff from 1991 to 1997, and a key member of Yeltsin's oligarch-funded re-election team in 1996. He was widely reported to be a top candidate to head the presidential administration in Yeltsin's second term, a job that eventually went to Anatoly Chubais.

Khodorkovsky said the unprecedented legal assault on his business empire "means that there really are no laws in this country."

"As a citizen of this country, I am ashamed," he told journalists during the opening of a company-sponsored boarding school in the Moscow region that was attended by Shakhnovsky.

Shakhnovsky said prosecutors asked him to return Monday for further questioning, Dow Jones reported.

In a related event Friday, prosecutors also summoned Yukos lawyer Anton Drel to give evidence -- which he declined to do, since it would have meant violating Moscow Bar Association rules on client privilege.

"The prosecutor's office wants me to break the law. I cannot give evidence as a witness in a case in which I am participating as a lawyer for my client," Drel said by telephone Saturday.

Appearing in connection with case No. 18/41 as summoned would place Drel in violation of article 8 of the law on advocates and article 56 of the Criminal Procedural Code, since he had previously acted as the lawyer for both Lebedev and Khodorkovsky during their questioning under this same case.

A spokeswoman for the prosecutor's office said Drel "had indeed been summoned to provide a witness statement," but that it was not related to the Lebedev case. "It is in connection with the theft and tax evasion case by a number of companies controlled by Yukos," she said, adding that the case against Lebedev had been allocated a new number -- 18/58 -- in August.

Speaking after the Moscow Bar Association's emergency meeting Friday, which forbade Drel from accepting the summons from prosecutors, the head of the association, Genri Reznik, said Drel's license to practice law could have been revoked had he gone in for questioning.

"Signing an official witness statement would mean [Drel] would immediately be taken off the case," Moscow Bar Association member Anatoly Kucherena of law firm Kucherena and Partners told Ekho Moskvy.

Drel said he thought prosecutors were hunting for reasons to extend the Oct. 30 deadline to finish investigating the Lebedev case.

The latest blow to what is arguably Russia's bluest blue chip had little effect on the market, but analysts said it was yet another blow to Khodorkovsky's efforts to sell a strategic stake to a Western super-major like ExxonMobil or ChevronTexaco, both of which have expressed interest in recent weeks.

"Who can sell the company if there's nobody left to sign off on the transaction? Other than through prison bars, that is," James Fenkner of Troika Dialog said.

(The Moscow Times 20.x.03)

 
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