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Lebedev Trial Opens, New Fines Requested

Yukos billionaire Platon Lebedev went on trial on Thursday in a case likely to signal how justice will handle charges against the country's richest man, Mikhail Khodorkovsky.

Lebedev, a core Yukos shareholder, faces charges broadly similar to those faced by Khodorkovsky -- the company's politically ambitious former CEO.

The court adjourned Lebedev's hearing after little more than an hour, putting off until next week further consideration of a defense request to bring together the cases against Lebedev and Khodorkovsky.

"Platon Leonidovich [Lebedev] does not consider himself guilty and thinks the criminal case was fabricated by the prosecutor's office," lawyer Yelena Liptser told reporters.

The Khodorkovsky case has caused a furor among Western investors. Many analysts believe it has been orchestrated by President Vladimir Putin's Kremlin to persuade other businessmen to fall into line.

Lebedev was taken into custody last July in the first indication that tough legal action was in store for Yukos. He was initially charged with theft of state property in connection with the 1994 privatization of the Apatit fertilizer firm.

The charges have since been broadened to include defrauding the state of the equivalent of $1.2 billion. He could be jailed for 10 years if found guilty. Proceedings could take months.

The trial is a bellwether of current attitudes to the chaotic sell-offs of the 1990s that made a handful of businessmen instant billionaires. Putin has said business magnates who broke laws will face punishment.

Lebedev owned 3.8 percent of Yukos before the oil giant's merger with Sibneft, now in the process of being unwound. Khodorkovsky was detained at gunpoint last October.

Defense requests to secure Lebedev's release on bail, particularly on health grounds, have been refused.

In a separate civil case the Tax Ministry had asked the court to increase penalties against Lebedev, Liptser said.

A tax inspectorate representative, Dmitry Yegorov, was quoted by Interfax as seeking nearly a twofold increase in the sum Lebedev would be obliged to pay -- more than 15 million rubles ($520,000), instead of 8 million rubles.

(The Moscow Times 21.v.04)

 
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