updated 12/1/2004 10:17:44 AM ET 2004-12-01T15:17:44

The Moscow City Court ruled Wednesday that Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the former CEO of embattled oil giant Yukos, remain behind bars until Feb. 14 as he is tried on criminal fraud and tax evasion charges.

Khodorkovsky was arrested in October 2003 in connection with the allegedly illegal privatization of a fertilizer component-maker in 1994, among other charges.

The Moscow City Court rejected an appeal by Khodorkovsky's legal team of a decision by the Meshchansky court of Nov. 1, which extended his detention. Prosecutors have insisted that Khodorkovsky could flee the country or pressure witnesses if released — claims that the tycoon, once considered Russia's richest man, rejects.

If convicted, Khodorkovsky, along with fellow inmate and business partner Platon Lebedev, who was arrested on similar charges in July 2003, could face up to 10 years in prison.

Lawyers for both men have made numerous appeals against their clients' detention — all of which have been rejected. Neither are expected to be set free for at least the duration of their trial.

The legal assault on Yukos and its owners is seen as an attempt by President Vladimir Putin's Kremlin to politically disarm Khodorkovsky, who had been funding opposition parties, while simultaneously reclaiming more power in the Russian economy through the sale of Yukos assets against the company's crippling back tax bill to a Kremlin-friendly buyer.

That prospect moved closer to realization Tuesday, when Gazprom, the state-controlled natural gas giant, announced that it would bid for key Yukos unit Yuganskneftegaz at an auction on Dec. 19.

In total, Yukos and its subsidiaries owe about $24.5 billion.

Yuganskneftegaz, which pumps 1 million barrels per day, or 60 percent of Yukos' oil, faces its own tax bill of nearly $3.7 billion, according to the Interfax news agency, which cited documents prepared for a Yukos shareholders' meeting.

Yukos' smaller production subsidiaries Samaraneftegaz and Tomskneft as well as the company's Angara refinery face tax claims of their own of $239 million, $128 million and $3 million, according to the report.

Meanwhile, Interfax reported that the Moscow Arbitration Court said it would hear tax authorities' claim to enforce fines of $2.5 billion for 2002 against Yukos on Dec. 8.

While not a new charge, the fines can only be collected following a court decision, unlike the core amount of the back tax claims.

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