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Bakhmina parole may come with strings

by at 23/04/2009 22:18

Anna Arutunyan

The drama surrounding Svetlana Bakhmina, a former Yukos lawyer who gave birth to her third child while still in prison, has come to a head after a Moscow court granted her parole.

Her release on Tuesday has raised hopes of the change in the judicial climate that President Dmitry Medvedev has been advocating. It could also affect the second trial against her former boss, ex-Yukos chief Mikhail Khodorkovsky.

While the court's decision to free Bakhmina may indicate a softer line in the Khodorkovsky trial, it could indicate that she could be called to give testimony against him.

Lawyers have suggested Bakhmina was somehow a hostage in the Yukos affair, while the drawn-out hearings into her parole last year illustrated indecisiveness on the part of the authorities. Regional courts in Mordovia, where Bakhmina was serving her 6 1/2-year term for embezzlement, twice refused to parole her.

In late October, just a month before giving birth to a daughter, Bakhmina requested a pardon from the Kremlin, a move that sparked widely-publicised campaigns involving public figures petitioning Medvedev to release her. But it was later reported that Bakhmina had withdrawn her request just five days after filing it.

Bakhmina's lawyer Roman Golovkin said that he did not know Bakhmina's motives for withdrawing the petition because her defence was barred from seeing her at that time. But others believe the hasty withdrawal was evidence that Bakhmina had come under pressure from investigators.

"The fact that, under these conditions, she was forced to withdraw her request for a pardon - this is a significant moment in this whole story," said Lev Ponomaryov, a human rights activist who has been watching the highly-politicised Yukos affair. "She was pressured.

Perhaps there was a trade-off, perhaps there were threats."

It was tempting to see the decision to parole Bakhmina - the first release of a Yukos-connected convict - as a positive signal for the trial of Khodorkovsky and his business partner Platon Lebedev. The two men this week pleaded not guilty to charges of stealing 350,000 tons of oil worth $25 billion. In Bakhmina's case, the fact that even the prosecution backed freeing her and pledged not to appeal the ruling suggested a turnabout in the handling of the Yukos case.

But Yury Shmidt, a lawyer for Khodorkovsky, said Bakhmina's release would not help Khodorkovsky in his trial.

"The decision cannot be positive for the Yukos case because these figures occupy different positions," he said. "Bakhmina has always been a hostage, and investigators were not interested in her. She was pressured to provide testimony against Khodorkovsky and Lebedev. We cannot say there can be a trend where, for instance, first Bakhmina is released, and now Khodorkovsky may be released.

"For several months I have suspected that there is some sort of unwholesome game going on around this poor woman. The refusals to grant her parole sounded too contrived. I cannot rule out that all this time, Bakhmina was pressured, and it is easy to pressure a pregnant woman and a nursing mother."

Asked if Bakhmina would be testifying in the Khodorkovsky case, Golovkin said that she was currently not among the list of witnesses.

"We do not expect at this point that she will be a witness in the case," said Golovkin. Shmidt explained: "I do not rule out that using promises of early parole, investigators pressured her into giving evidence against Khodorkovsky. Even though she is currently not a witness in the case, the prosecutors can call her as a witness any time. I do not want to accuse her of making this deal, but knowing what they are capable of and her condition,

I cannot rule out that she has given evidence. These people have many unfinished cases, and she may have given evidence in other cases, and the evidence can be used in this case."

Asked what the chances were that Bakhmina could be called as a witness in the second Khodorkovsky trial, Shmidt said his estimate was 50 per cent.

Lawyers stressed that there was nothing legally unusual in a pregnant woman being granted parole if she has not been convicted of a severe crime. "We were expecting this ruling in May, it was a matter of common sense," Golovkin said. "Why the regional courts didn't grant parole is a mystery to me."

Tuesday's ruling may still be evidence of a changing political tide, some lawyers said.

"This was a humane step, all the conditions to grant parole were there," said Anatoly Kucherena, a prominent lawyer who heads a Public Chamber commission on oversight of law enforcement and justice reform. "We can only regret that the procedure took a whole year. This does not add authority to the courts that issued different rulings."

Shmidt suggested that Medvedev may have backed the decision to free Bakhmina on humanitarian grounds.

"I cannot rule out that the president, after the questions he was asked by Novaya Gazeta and by human rights advocates, could have said something to his aides, to the effect of, ‘What's going on? Please sort this out.' I cannot rule out that such a conversation with aides played a role in this."

A representative of Medvedev's press service declined to comment, but did not rule out future statements from Medvedev's press secretary, Natalya Timakova.

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