Sberbank CEO Testimony ‘Major Victory’ for Khodorkovsky

German Gref. Source: ITAR-TASSOn Monday, Sberbank President and CEO German Gref testified for the defense in the second court case against jailed Russian oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky and his close associate Platon Lebedev. The case has been denounced by government critics as politically motivated, and calls by Khodorkovsky’s lawyers for Prime Minister Vladimir Putin to take the stand have been repeatedly turned down by the court.

Supporters of the oil tycoon are hailing Gref’s testimony as a major point in their favor, however, as the former government minister stated that not only were Khodorkovsky’s actions perfectly legal, but that the gas theft the government is accusing him of could not have happened without his awareness.

The Associated Press reports:

Imprisoned tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky received a boost in his embezzlement trial on Monday when a former government minister told a Moscow court that the masssive theft the magnate is charged with could not have taken place without official knowledge.

Once Russia’s richest man, Khodorkovsky has already served six years of an eight-year sentence for tax evasion. As his release date approached last year, prosecutors hit him with the new charges of embezzling of $25 billion in petroleum products. If convicted, the 46-year-old Khodorkovsky faces up to 22 more years in prison.

The three hours of testimony by German Gref, who was minister of economic development when the crackdown against Khodorkovsky began in 2003, may not sway Russia’s notoriously weak court system. But they showed that some of Russia’s top insiders are prepared to take the stand in defense of the embattled oligarch.

“Checking on such matters was not part of my job, other agencies exist for that … However, if embezzlement had been discovered, I would have been made aware of it,” said Gref, a liberal economist who is currently chairman of Sberbank, Russia’s largest bank.

Outside the courtroom, Khodorkovsky’s lawyers described Gref’s statement as a major victory.

“It shows that at the time when this oil was allegedly being stolen, the government did not know it. So for prosecutors to claim now, many years later, that this oil was then being embezzled looks all the more unreasonable,” defense lawyer Konstantin Rifkin told The Associated Press.

Monday’s hearing was unusual in that the court allowed Khodorkovsky to question Gref, who was deputy head of the State Property Ministry when Khodorkovsky took control of the Yukos oil corporation.

Through the small window in the defendant’s cage, Khodorkovsky, who has served most of his sentence in a Siberian prison, stuck to a technical line of questioning, appearing nervous at the chance to interrogate a man so close to his perceived enemies in the government.

Gref drew snickers from the court audience when he was unable to answer whether he sat on the board of a state pipeline company, but he admitted that it was perfectly legal for Yukos to buy oil at steep discounts from its subsidiaries — one of the methods the prosecution is claiming that Khodorkovsky used to embezzle the oil.

The new trial is becoming a who’s who in Russian politics. Last month former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov testified on behalf of Khodorkovsky — calling prosecutors’ charges “absurd” — and on Tuesday former energy minister Viktor Khristenko is scheduled to take the stand.

Khodorkovsky’s lawyers have tried to call Prime Minister Vladimir Putin as a witness in the case, as well as numerous other officials who have direct knowledge of the state’s campaign to dismantle Yukos.

For more coverage from the Other Russia on Mikhail Khodorkovsky and the second Yukos case:

Khodorkovsky’s Hunger Strike Puts Spotlight on Medvedev
Khodorkovsky Calls Putin to Court
Former Russian PM Reveals Putin’s Campaign Against Tycoon