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Russia charges Khodorkovsky with money laundering

Russian prosecutors charged jailed billionaire Mikhail Khodorkovsky with money laundering and embezzlement, crimes that could add at least 15 years to the former OAO Yukos Oil Co. owner's prison sentence and end any hope of parole before presidential elections.

Prosecutors filed the charges today in Chita, eastern Siberia, where Khodorkovsky is serving eight years for fraud and tax evasion, Khodorkovsky spokesman Maxim Dbar said by phone from Moscow. Platon Lebedev, Khodorkovsky's former business partner, was also charged. The Prosecutor General's Office said it will release a statement detailing the charges later today. The two men, who ran Russia's largest holding company, were convicted in 2005 amid multibillion-dollar tax charges against Yukos that led to the oil producer's bankruptcy. They've denied guilt repeatedly, saying the sentences are payback for supporting political opponents of President Vladimir Putin. „The government doesn't think Khodorkovsky will come out of prison and run for president, but they want the pre-election period to go smoothly and don't want activism of any kind,” said Masha Lipman, a political analyst at the Carnegie Moscow Center.

„They don't want a political force of any kind.” Without the new charges, Khodorkovsky, arrested in October 2003, will be eligible for parole on October 25, after serving half his sentence, including pre-trial detention. Russia holds parliamentary elections in December, followed three months later by the vote to replace Putin, who must step down when his second-consecutive term ends in May. Dbar said the laundering charge carries a maximum penalty of 15 years and embezzlement at least eight years. It wasn't clear if the sentences can be served concurrently. „We are confident these new charges are baseless and represent nothing more than the latest chapter in the Kremlin's continuing manipulation of Russia's criminal justice system to achieve its political ends,” lawyers for the two men said in an e-mailed statement. (Bloomberg)