Russia issues arrest warrant for Putin critic

"I'm considered by President Putin as a threat, economically... and politically," Mr Khodorkovsky says.
"I'm considered by President Putin as a threat, economically... and politically," Mr Khodorkovsky says. PHOTO: REUTERS

Ex-oil tycoon, who got surprise pardon two years ago, says he might apply for UK asylum

MOSCOW • Russia has issued an international arrest warrant for top opposition leader Mikhail Khodorkovsky, as Moscow ramped up the pressure on a leading critic of President Vladimir Putin.

The announcement from the Investigative Committee, a top law enforcement body which reports directly to Mr Putin, came nearly two years to the day since the Kremlin strongman stunned Russia by announcing that his political enemy, who had spent a decade in prison, would be pardoned and set free.

Mr Khodorkovsky said he might apply for asylum in Britain, and that the arrest warrant showed Mr Putin still saw him as a threat.

"Definitely I'm considering asking for asylum in the UK," he told the BBC. "I'm considered by President Putin as a threat, economically, because of the possible seizure of Russian assets abroad, and politically, as someone who will potentially help democratic candidates in the coming 2016 elections."

A French court earlier this month backed the freezing of Russian assets in France at the behest of shareholders in Mr Khodorkovsky's former oil firm Yukos. The shareholders, who are seeking US$50 billion (S$70 billion) in damages, blame Moscow for driving the firm into liquidation for political reasons before taking it over.

Russian investigators earlier this month charged the 52-year-old former oil tycoon in absentia with organising the 1998 murder of a mayor in Siberia. He was also charged with the attempted murders of two other people.

Investigative Committee spokesman Vladimir Markin said in a statement an international arrest warrant had been issued for the Kremlin critic, who lives abroad and spends much of his time in London.

In a statement released by his opposition group Open Russia, Mr Khodorkovsky said Russian officials had "gone mad". His spokesman Kulle Pispanen dismissed the warrant as political pressure.

"Mikhail Borisovich will by no means limit his movements because of the hysterical actions of the Kremlin ghouls," Ms Pispanen said, referring to Mr Khodorkovsky by his first name and patronymic.

Mr Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov insisted that there was no contradiction between the presidential move to pardon the former tycoon and the arrest warrant.

On Tuesday, investigators raided the apartments of employees of the Moscow-based Open Russia group, set up to help nurture civil society in the country, as well as its offices. The raids appeared tied to a 2003 case which led to the criminal prosecution of one of Russia's most powerful oligarchs and the dismemberment of his Yukos oil company which have become defining events in Mr Putin's presidency.

"In revenge for the arrest of Russian property in France, the Investigative Committee arrested Kulle Pispanen's MacBook and iPhone, a letter to Father Christmas and a portrait of Khodorkovsky," Open Russia employee Maria Baronova wrote on Facebook.

Mr Khodorkovsky spent a decade in prison on charges of tax evasion, fraud and embezzlement, but was suddenly pardoned by Mr Putin in 2013 and flown out of the country.

He vowed to steer clear of politics upon his release from prison but in September 2014 he called on pro-European Russians to work together in the run-up to 2016 parliamentary polls to influence the fate of their country.

When investigators announced earlier this month they planned to press new charges against Mr Khodorkovsky, he openly challenged the Kremlin, calling a news conference in London and saying that revolution in Russia was inevitable.

While in prison, Mr Khodorkovsky frequently traded barbs with Mr Putin, notably saying in 2010 that he pitied a man who could only feel love for dogs.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 25, 2015, with the headline 'Russia issues arrest warrant for Putin critic'. Print Edition | Subscribe