Khodorkovsky Case: Russia's Courtroom of the Absurd

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Sergey Ponomarev / AP

Mikhail Khodorkovsky, in a Moscow courtroom on Dec. 27, 2010, was found guilty of stealing billions of dollars in oil

In an absurd and hopeless situation, laughter is often the only defense — and it has been used throughout the trial of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the former Russian oligarch found guilty on Monday of stealing billions of dollars in oil. Seated in the glass defendants' cage that his lawyers call the aquarium, Khodorkovsky smiled and giggled as the guilty verdict was read, acting more like a ticklish child than a man whose freedom was on the line. But for Khodorkovsky's lawyers, this seemed like the only logical response to a trial that has pushed the Russian justice system deep into the realm of farce.

From the beginning, the lawyers' challenge in this case has been responding to a set of charges that seemed inherently bizarre. Khodorkovsky stood accused of stealing an incredible 350 million tons of oil (enough to fill a small lake) from his own oil companies, some of which never even produced the amount of oil Khodorkovsky allegedly stole. Even if the theft were possible, observers of the trial were left to wonder why Khodorkovsky would steal so much from his own companies. How did those companies keep from going bankrupt if all their oil was stolen? And how could the oil be siphoned off in secret if all the country's pipelines were controlled by the state?

Early in the trial, pointing out these logical gaps became the key goal of the defense — the result being a kind of courtroom comic theater. At one point, Khodorkovsky had his lawyers bring a jar of crude to the courtroom and dared prosecutors to show how one would pump it without a pipeline. Inadvertently, the prosecutors also became the source of comic relief. On Oct. 22, Judge Viktor Danilkin laughed so hard at their attempts to paint Khodorkovsky as an evildoer that he had to wipe tears from his eyes. "When faced with such nonsense, it is very hard to take it seriously," says Vadim Klyuvgant, the lead attorney for the defense. "Anyone who has watched this trial understands that it is just a farce."

That is mainly because of a pervading sense that the serious part of Khodorkovsky's case had played out far away from the courtroom and long before this trial began. In the early 2000s, Khodorkovsky made the mistake of challenging Vladimir Putin, who was then Russia's President. He financed political parties opposed to Putin's rule, and managed his oil empire in a way that did not suit the government's wishes. So in October 2003, he was arrested by masked commandos on the tarmac of a Siberian airport and, after a yearlong trial, he was sentenced to eight years in prison for fraud and tax evasion.

As his release date approached last year, prosecutors put him on trial again, this time for embezzlement and money laundering. They asked the court to keep him in prison until 2017. The charges were riddled with mistakes, including a bunch of shoddy arithmetic that inflated the amount of stolen oil by half, a mistake prosecutors eventually admitted. But the defense still had little hope of an acquittal. Putin, who has remained as powerful as ever since becoming Prime Minister in 2008, repeated throughout the trial that Khodorkovsky deserves to stay behind bars. Most recently on Dec. 16, less than two weeks before the verdict, he said on national television that "a thief should sit in prison."

This blatant bit of pressure on the court seemed to irritate President Dmitri Medvedev, a former lawyer, who said on Dec. 24 that no official "has the right to state his position about this case or any other case until the sentence is read." This was the clearest rebuke against Putin that Medvedev had ever made, and for Khodorkovsky's lawyers, it seemed to highlight their core dilemma.

In order for Khodorkovsky to go free, one of the branches of the Russian government would have to oppose Putin's expressed wish for him to remain incarcerated: either the President would need to grant a pardon or the court would have to acquit. In Russia's legal system, this would be an aberration, but Medvedev's rhetoric seemed encouraging. "The President of our country pronounced more than two years ago that his priorities are rule of law, independent judges and the fight [against] legal nihilism," Klyuvgant said at a press conference on Dec. 14. "We just hope he will be able to achieve that. But it's just our hope, not reality, so far."

On Monday morning, about 250 demonstrators rallied outside the courthouse with a similar hope in mind. "I came to give the court a message," one of them told TIME. "Have the courage to let [Khodorkovsky] go." By midmorning, the judge's voice was drowned out by the chants of "freedom" coming from the demonstration on the street, and then came the sound of screaming as dozens of protesters were dragged by police to waiting vans. By then, the judge had rattled off the first part of the 200-page verdict. "He seems to be quoting directly from the prosecution's arguments," Konstantin Rivkin, a defense attorney, said during a recess. "I haven't heard anything in favor of the defense."

Over the next few days, Judge Danilkin will finish reading the verdict and pronounce the sentence, which lawyers do not expect to be lenient. A presidential pardon, although still technically possible, now seems like a pipe dream as the conclusion of the trial makes two things clear. Although it may have been his only defense, Khodorkovsky's humor has failed to dent the absurdity of the charges against him. At the same time, Putin's deadpan statement on Dec. 16 that Russia's courts "are among the most humane in the world" has begun to look more laughable than ever.