MOSCOW (AP) – Russia’s richest man pleaded innocent to charges of tax evasion and fraud on Thursday, nearly eight months after his arrest at gunpoint at a Siberian airport.

Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the former head of Yukos, Russia’s largest oil company, entered the plea after prosecutors read the lengthy case against him and co-defendant Platon Lebedev as the two listened from inside a metal cage in a metal cage in the Meshchansky district court. The judge granted Khodorkovsky’s request to delay making a full, formal response until Friday.

Lebedev also pleaded innocent, his lawyers said.

The case is part of a complex web of legal actions, including a bill for $3.4 billion in back taxes that Yukos says could force it into bankruptcy.

The state says the legal actions against Yukos and Khodorkovsky are part of an anti-corruption drive, but critics say they are Kremlin-led retaliation for the tycoon’s political aspirations and growing clout.

Khodorkovsky, who could receive a 10-year sentence if convicted, wrote a long jailhouse critique of the current state of Russian liberalism earlier this year.

He also has spoken with reporters during breaks in court sessions. But he has yet to publicly present his defense in the case, which has put his honor, the fate of Russia’s largest oil producer and Russia’s reputation as a law-ruled state in peril.

Lebedev, asked earlier in the day if he understood the charges against him, said: “I don’t understand what is going on in this court.”

As he spoke, he held onto the bars of the defendant’s cage and swayed slightly. His lawyers have complained that he suffers from a serious liver ailment and requires greater medical attention.

The charges center on the 1994 privatization of a company that makes a key fertilizer component – one of the deals that helped Khodorkovsky build an empire that made him Russia’s richest man. Prosecutors say Khodorkovsky and Lebedev were part of an “organized group” that won a 20 percent stake in the company, Apatit, through a scheme involving shell structures that bid for the shares.

The trial is running as Yukos struggles for a compromise over the back taxes claim for 2000. Yukos is seeking a deal that would allow it to restructure its debts and keep the government from seizing its key assets.

Tax authorities also have declared Yukos owes $3.3 billion for 2001 and large bills for other years also are expected.

Khodorkovsky stepped down as Yukos’ chief executive after his October arrest, but remains a major shareholder. He has proposed turning over his stock and that of close associates to settle the tax debt.

While government departments were reportedly considering a company offer to settle the tax claims by making $8 billion in payments over two years, Deputy Finance Minister Sergei Shatalov said Wednesday that no appropriately formulated request had been received.

Regardless of the fate of its proposal, Yukos said Wednesday that it planned to pay $1.25 billion to $1.3 billion of its claim this month, and the ITAR-Tass news agency quoted Justice Ministry official Andrei Belyakov as saying that Yukos has begun making payments. He would not say how much had been paid.

Yukos had hoped to use a 35 percent stake in the smaller oil company Sibneft to settle the back tax bill, but that hope dimmed after a court in the Far East region of Chukotka on Friday froze a 15 percent stake in Sibneft belonging to Yukos, Sibneft spokesman John Mann said Thursday. That left Yukos with a 20 percent stake in the company. Yukos acquired the 35 percent stake, currently valued at $4.7 billion, in a failed merger last year.

Authorities have already frozen shares in two major Yukos subsidiaries – Yuganskneftegaz and Samaraneftegaz – as collateral to satisfy the 2000 tax bill, ITAR-Tass reported Wednesday.

Analysts have suggested the company could be looking at a final bill of more than $10 billion.

AP-ES-07-15-04 1153EDT



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