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Yukos Haunted by Charges of Past Misdeeds

Accusations of violence and manipulation in the '90s didn't stick. Today prosecutors focus on fraud allegations, but experts cite loopholes.

November 13, 2003|Kim Murphy | Times Staff Writer

MOSCOW — Yevgeny Rybin remembers the last time he was at the home of Leonid Filimonov, vice president of Yukos Exploration & Production. Not long after he walked out the door, two bursts of submachine gun fire were aimed at him.

The Russian oil industry executive, who represented an Austrian company involved in a joint venture with Yukos, escaped unharmed.

Six months later, on March 5, 1999, Rybin's car hit a mine in the road next to his house. Several men rushed out of the bushes and opened fire. Rybin's driver died on the spot and his two bodyguards were badly injured. But Rybin again was unhurt -- he had left the car 15 minutes earlier to attend his nephew's birthday party.

A former military commando was found guilty of the first attack and sentenced to 11 years in prison. But who hired him remains a mystery. The case went all the way to the Russian Supreme Court, which struck from the record suspicions that Yukos was involved, concluding there was "no proof" to support such allegations. No arrests have been made in the second case.

This week, Rybin returned to Moscow from Vienna for a rare visit to a city that is both his home and the place he fears most. The prosecutor general's office is questioning Rybin about the past business conflict that he believes made him a target.

Prosecutors' invitation to Rybin to come back to Moscow --where he is accompanied by an entourage of bodyguards -- underscores the government's commitment to probing every possible criminal allegation against Yukos and the oil company's billionaire former chief executive, Mikhail Khodorkovsky.

Prosecutors charge that Khodorkovsky and his business partners engaged in massive fraud. The men's defenders say the government is trying to turn them into scapegoats for Russia's lax laws and the freewheeling business climate that allowed a small number of people to become fabulously rich as the country dismantled its communist system.

"When it happened, I of course immediately realized where the danger was coming from," Rybin said in an interview this week, referring to the efforts to kill him. "In all my years, I never visited a police station, I never was under investigation.... There were no bandits or crooks in my circle. I never owed money to anybody. But I was very active in exposing the machinations of Yukos -- too active."

Yukos officials scoff at the idea that the company would target Rybin. They say he is attempting to discredit the company because he lost a long-running court battle with a Yukos subsidiary over a joint venture gone sour.

"It's unbelievably brazen that this man is walking around making these kinds of allegations," Yukos spokesman Hugo Erikssen said. "The question of the involvement of Yukos in the attempted killing of Mr. Rybin has been tried all the way to the Supreme Court, and the Supreme Court found that Yukos was not involved."

Prosecutors recently unveiled their case against Khodorkovsky, 40, describing a complex web of shell companies and tax deals he and his business partners allegedly set up to divert profits from stockholders, evade taxes and improperly take control of at least two companies.

The allegations involve not only the early years of post-Soviet capitalism -- when it is widely acknowledged that many companies engaged in all but unfettered privatization deals that skirted the law -- but include assertions of tax violations as recently as 2000 and 2001, when Yukos was operating as an internationally respected and highly Westernized company, poised to become Russia's biggest oil marketer.

Prosecutors are also investigating at least five cases of murder and attempted murder that may have involved Yukos employees, said spokeswoman Natalia Vishnyakova.

"This is unprecedented, fantastic fraud," Vishnyakova said in an interview Wednesday. "The young men who were running these companies have superb brains. They have superior intelligence. But they totally lack such notions as conscience and morals."

In one case under investigation, Mayor Vladimir Petukhov of the oil town Nefteyugansk was killed on June 26, 1998, after accusing the company of underpaying taxes to the city budget.

Prosecutors accuse former Yukos security director Alexei Pichugin of organizing attempts on the life of former Menatep employee Olga Kostina in 1998 and another man with whom Yukos had a business dispute. (Menatep is the holding company that controls most of Yukos stock.) He also is accused of organizing the 2002 slaying of a man, identified only as Gorin, who prosecutors believe knew about other attempted murders and threatened to tell authorities. Gorin's wife was also killed.

Pichugin's lawyer, Georgy Kagener, told the Interfax news service recently that there was no truth to the charges, saying he believed they might have been filed to pressure Pichugin into testifying against others.

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