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Russian prosecutors close new investigation of Khodorkovsky

Russian prosecutors have finished their investigation into new embezzlement charges against jailed ex-billionaire Mikhail Khodorkovsky and his former partner, Platon Lebedev, the prosecutors' office said on its Web site.

Maxim Dbar, a Moscow-based spokesman for Khodorkovsky's legal team, said yesterday that lawyers for the two men had received notification late Friday. He said they would need „several months” to study the case material before a trial could begin. Prosecutors on February 5 charged Khodorkovsky, once Russia's richest man, and Lebedev with money laundering and embezzlement. The new charges may potentially add at least 15 years to the sentences of the two men, who are already serving eight years after their convictions for fraud and tax evasion. The two would have been eligible for parole later this year. Khodorkovsky and Lebedev are accused by prosecutors of allegedly embezzling more than 850 billion rubles ($32 billion) in illegal oil revenue from 1998 to 2003, according to the new charges. Khodorkovsky, the founder of now-bankrupt OAO Yukos Oil Co., has called the new charges a „disgraceful farce” intended to keep him in prison through national elections. Russia holds parliamentary elections in December, followed three months later with a vote to replace President Vladimir Putin. Supporters of Khodorkovsky say the Kremlin targeted him because he funded opposition parties and to pursue a goal of increasing state control of the energy sector. State-run OAO Rosneft acquired Yukos' main production arm in late 2004. Rosneft along with natural gas monopoly OAO Gazprom are eyeing other Yukos assets to be auctioned off this year. Yukos, once Russia's largest oil producer, was declared bankrupt after the state levied almost $28 billion in back taxes against the company. (Bloomberg)