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More Prison Time for Khodorkovsky?

Jailed Yukos founder Mikhail Khodorkovsky is looking at a possible 15-year prison term in connection with a money-laundering inquiry. The prison term would come on top of the eight years he is already serving.

Prosecutors on Wednesday questioned Khodorkovsky as part of their inquiry.

"Khodorkovsky is suspected of stealing oil revenues from Yukos subsidiary firms and then laundering these funds by donating them to Open Russia," Khodorkovsky's lawyer, Yury Shmidt, said by telephone from the regional capital, Chita.

Open Russia is a philanthropic foundation established by Yukos in 2001.

No charges were brought Wednesday against Khodorkovsky, Shmidt said. But, he said, investigators from the General Prosecutor's Office did inform the former tycoon he was a suspect in the case.

Another suspect, Khodorkovsky's associate Platon Lebedev, who is also serving an eight-year prison term, refused to answer investigators' questions, citing the constitution, Shmidt said.

The penalty for money-laundering can be as much as 15 years behind bars.

Khodorkovsky had been held at a detention facility in the Chita region. Lebedev had been at a facility in the Yamal-Nenets autonomous district. Both were transferred earlier this month to the capital of the Chita region.

A spokesman for the Prosecutor General's Office declined to comment Wednesday, citing the confidentiality of the ongoing probe.

In March, Moscow's Basmanny District Court froze Open Russia's bank accounts, depriving the foundation of about $6 million.

The court order freezing the accounts said action had been taken to protect the rights of unidentified individuals and firms, said Irina Savchenko, a former Open Russia spokeswoman.

Open Russia spent a total of $60 million from 2001 to 2005, reaching out to more than 500,000 recipients through dozens of regional and national projects, Savchenko said.

The bulk of Open Russia's money came from Khodorkovsky and other former Yukos shareholders, Savchenko said.

The foundation's directors had not been contacted about the money-laundering investigation, said Anatoly Yermolin, Open Russia's deputy chairman and an independent State Duma deputy. Yermolin recalled Open Russia receiving a letter from authorities two months ago demanding the foundation pay $600,000 in tax arrears and fines.

"The tax officers said they could not trace 12 of the several hundred contractors we use, and they decided that the money we paid in 2004 was, in fact, stolen," he said.

Yermolin said he then set out to track down the contractors. In a matter of hours, he said, he had found eight of the 12 firms in question. Yermolin said he tried to communicate information about the eight firms to officials, "but they didn't want to listen to anything."

Shmidt, Khodorkovsky's lawyer, called the money-laundering accusations "nonsense." "Criminals launder money to get that money back clean," he said. "They don't give money to charity."

The Moscow City Court refused Wednesday to postpone the imprisonment of former Yukos legal manager Svetlana Bakhmina, Interfax reported.

Bakhmina was sentenced to seven years in prison in April for fraud and tax evasion. She had asked to have her imprisonment delayed for nine years, until her younger child reached the age of 14. The law allows for such delays.

Also Wednesday, the General Prosecutor's Office demanded the United States extradite Leonid Nevzlin, a former Yukos co-owner who is wanted by Moscow on fraud charges. Nevzlin lives in Israel and was visiting the United States. Nevzlin denies the charges against him.

The prosecutor general said Wednesday that Nevzlin may have ordered the poisoning of former security agent Alexander Litvinenko.

(The Moscow Times 28.xii.06)

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