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Inmate Slashes Khodorkovsky's Nose

Yukos founder Mikhail Khodorkovsky's nose was slashed early Friday by a fellow inmate while Khodorkovsky slept in a barracks in the Krasnokamensk prison colony he has been confined to for the last six months, his lawyers said.

A former prison officer in Krasnokamensk attributed the knifing to a change in the power structure at the prison, suggesting the attack was not orchestrated by state officials, as Khodorkovsky's lawyers implied may have been the case.

Still, there was uncertainty late Sunday surrounding the attack. Khodorkovsky, once the country's richest man, is serving an eight-year term in the Chita region prison after a highly politicized investigation and trial.

While Russian prisons are notorious for violence and lack of order, Khodorkovsky continues to rankle senior state officials, who are believed to have initiated the campaign against Khodorkovsky in the first place.

"I assume there are enough people within the official establishment who are frustrated by Khodorkovksy not having shown any hint of weakness," Khodorkovsky's lawyer Yury Schmidt said by telephone Sunday. "There are plenty of ways to turn one's life into hell."

Schmidt stopped short of calling the attack an assassination attempt. "The aim is unclear," he said. "It could have been done to cause pain or to mutilate."

Nikolai Moshchanits, the former prison officer, who formerly ran the prison football team and a production line where prisoners made clothes, said by telephone Sunday that Khodorkovsky's attack had been ordered by a new smotryashchy, or criminal boss, who took over the colony a few months ago. The attack, Moshchanits added, was meant to be a "provocation."

"He wanted to show to the prison authorities who was boss," Moshchanits said. "There was no danger to Khodorkovsky's life." Khodorkovsky was chosen, he said, because he was the penal colony's highest-profile inmate.

Moshchanits said the incident had been closely watched by prison officials across the country.

"A commission from Chita has already arrived, and one from Moscow is expected too. They will punish the prison officials and may even fire some. The reaction will be adequate," he said.

Natalya Terekhova, Khodorkovsky's Krasnokamensk lawyer, would not speculate on the motive behind the attack. "I am sure it is not related to any criminal activities," she said Sunday by telephone. "There has never been any reason for Khodorkovsky to be involved and there would not be."

Khodorkovsky woke early Friday with his face covered in blood, Terekhova said. "He did not see the attacker," she said. "He got up and ran to the mirror to figure out what happened. He then alerted the inmate in charge of the barrack, who in turn informed a prison officer on duty."

Khodorkovsky was taken into the colony's medical unit, where a dentist who also handles facial injuries stitched up a gash on Khodorkovsky's left nostril.

Terekhova said it became clear shortly after the incident that it was a fellow inmate who was responsible for the knifing. The lawyer referred to the inmate as Kuchma, adding that she did not know his first name. Kuchma, 23, first made it into the news in mid-March after he and Khodorkovsky were punished for drinking tea in a place deemed inappropriate by authorities.

Khodorkovsky is not planning to take legal action against the prisoner, whom Russian media Saturday inexplicably called Khodorkovsky's "young friend." In Russian, the term connotes a sexual relationship.

Terekhova said Sunday that she had seen Khodorkovsky on Saturday afternoon and that the cut looked well taken care of by the doctor and did not appear to be causing much discomfort.

Prison officials on Saturday tried to downplay the incident, saying that Kuchma and Khodorkvosky were involved in a fight that prompted Kuchma to "scratch" Khodrokovsky's nose.

"An investigation is under way, but most likely there was some sort of unpleasant situation during which the young inmate scratched Khodorkovsky's nose," a Federal Prison Service official told Interfax on Saturday. More official information was expected to be released on Monday.

But Khodorkovsky's defense lawyers were unimpressed, expressing outrage that after the attack authorities were thought to have discovered another knife and a razor blade in Kuchma's possession.

"One of the main arguments given by the authorities to justify Khodorkovsky's move to Krasnokamensk was that it would be safer for him," Anton Drel, also a Khodorkovsky lawyer, said.

Drel said Khodorkovsky's lawyers had hoped that the authorities would make sure their client was safe, but he said authorities did not appear serious about protecting him. While Khodorkovsky is routinely searched and monitored, Drel said, other prisoners appear to enjoy much more freedom inside the prison walls.

"He is not safe there," Drel said. "Other inmates probably see that justice is very selectively applied and feel that they can behave accordingly."

On Sunday, some of Khodorkovsky's supporters also voiced fears for his life.

"It was a well-planned attack," said Novaya Gazeta journalist Anna Politkovskaya, who is known for her coverage of Chechnya. "There had been rumors circulating that something like that could have happened. The Kremlin is tired of having a convict filing complaints for every violation committed against him. After this attack, the Kremlin hopes that [Khodorkovsky] will calm down."

Khodorkovsky's former business partner Leonid Nevzlin, who left Russia for Israel in the fall of 2003 fearing prosecution, also appeared to have little doubt that the attack was ordered from on high.

"The Russian regime has stooped to a new low. First, they hold a show trial. Then, they throw Khodorkovsky in a remote Siberian prison, where he is being held in appalling conditions. Then, they try to eliminate him physically by exposing him to danger," Nevzlin said in an e-mailed statement Sunday.

"These tactics demand the attention of Amnesty International and the International Committee of the Red Cross," he said.

The attack came as the government onslaught against Yukos nears a crucial endgame. As the company enters bankruptcy proceedings, the oil firm's reputation is soon to be put to a new test in a trial against the oil firm's security chief, Alexei Pichugin, over the murder of the former mayor of Nefteyugansk and other attempted murders; the trial is weeks away.

Pichugin has already been sentenced to 20 years in prison for a double contract killing and a series of other attacks after a trial last year that was closed to the public. This time, prosecutors have decided that the public should hear the full details of Yukos executives' alleged crimes. The new murder trial will be open to the public.

(The Moscow Times 17.iv.06)

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