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Yukos Chiefs Brought To Trial

MOSCOW - Locked in a metal cage surrounded by special forces troops, Yukos billionaires Mikhail Khodorkovsky and Platon Lebedev faced trial together for the first time Wednesday as sources indicated the core Yukos shareholders might cave in and reduce their stakes in the oil major.

The trial's outcome is seen as key in establishing greater state control over big business. Key defense lawyers said they believed they had little chance of winning. The court turned down both defendants' appeals for bail requests and, almost nine hours after the trial started, ruled to postpone the beginning of full-blown hearings into their joint case until June 23.

The trial began amid mounting pressure on the Menatep shareholders, whose company Yukos could face bankruptcy as soon as Friday if a separate court hearing scheduled for that day rules against its appeal over a $3.4 billion back taxes claim.

Menatep spokesman Yury Kotler said Wednesday the core group of Yukos shareholders were ready to provide guarantees for that claim, in proportion to their ownership of the company, in a bid to stave off bankruptcy.

A source close to Menatep said that the group was ready to back Yukos management's appeal to the government this week to find a solution to the tax claim in order to save the company. In that appeal, management also suggested a share issue as one way of paying off the claim.

Such a move would dilute both the stakes of Menatep and minority shareholders. A close associate of Khodorkovsky said it was clear that the Kremlin wanted Khodorkovsky and Menatep out of Yukos.

"I personally think that Yukos will be taken away from its shareholders," he said. "Nobody's going to let a person out of jail who can earn $3 billion in dividends every year."

The close associate of Khodorkovsky said he believed the oil tycoon had been mistaken in not believing President Vladimir Putin would go so far as to jail him. "I think Khodorkovsky didn't really believe that Putin would imprison him for good," he said.

Leafing through a book as the prosecutor detailed reasons why Lebedev could be kept in custody until Sept. 26.

If convicted in this case, Khodorkovsky and Lebedev could face up to 10 years in prison.

(The St. Petersburg Times 18.vi.04)

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