[JURIST] A Russian court heard arguments Tuesday at the start of the trial of former Russian oil executive Mikhail Khodorkovsky [defense website; JURIST news archive] and his former business partner Platon Lebedev [defense website] on embezzlement and money laundering charges [JURIST report]. As the trial began, the court refused a request [AFP report] by Khodorkovsky's lawyers to call Russian prime minister and former president Vladimir Putin [JURIST news archive] as a defense witness. The court also refused an additional defense request [RIA Novosti report] to have one of the parties against Khodorkovsky in the lawsuit, the Russian oil company Rosneft [corporate website], removed from the proceedings. Khodorkovsky and Lebedev are accused of illegally taking approximately $20 billion from Russian energy firm OAO Yukos Oil Co. [TIME backgrounder], but challenged the allegations, asserting that the evidence against them was insufficient [RIA Novosti report] to sustain the prosecution. If found guilty, Khodorkovsky could face 22 years in jail in addition to the eight years he is already serving for fraud and tax evasion.
Two weeks ago, the court refused a request [JURIST report] by Khodorkovsky and Lebedev to have the charges against them dropped, one day after Judge Viktor Danilkin refused to recuse himself [St. Petersburg Times report] from the case amid accusations of bias. Critics have claimed that the charges against Khodorkovsky and Lebedev are politically motivated due to Khodorkovsky's opposition against Putin. The transfer of the two from prison to Moscow to stand trial on the new charges was ordered [JURIST report] last month by a judge for the District Court in Moscow. Khodorkovsky still maintains that his 2005 conviction [JURIST report] on the fraud and tax evasion was unjust, and maintains his innocence. He requested early release from that sentence last July, but his application was rejected [JURIST reports] in August because he disobeyed guards at the Krasnokamensk penal colony [Guardian backgrounder], refused to participate in a training program, and faced the possibility of additional charges. Khodorkovsky has appealed [JURIST report] that decision.