Try the new

February 22, 2013 10:00 pm

Celebrities defend Lebedev as trial nears

  • Share
  • Print
  • Clip
  • Gift Article
  • Comments

US and British celebrities have lined up to defend Russian billionaire and London newspaper magnate Alexander Lebedev, who faces a possible five-year sentence after he punched a fellow oligarch in the face on a TV talk show.

In a step reminiscent of Soviet dissident trials of the 1960s and 1970s, when western dignitaries would write to the politburo asking for leniency, actors Hugh Grant, Kevin Spacey and John Malkovich have written character references on Mr Lebedev’s behalf.

“Though he may have acted unwisely to a deliberate and egregious provocation, he is neither a violent nor dangerous man,” said Mr Malkovich in a handwritten letter.

“His generosity is well known, as is his respect for openness in journalism and society,” wrote Mr Spacey, who worked with Mr Lebedev and Mr Malkovich on a Chekhov festival in the Crimea four years ago.

Mr Grant described him as “well educated and philanthropic, and admired by many here in the UK”, and says he has known Mr Lebedev for 10 years.

Mr Lebedev also has testimonials from playwright Tom Stoppard, the Dean of Westminster Abbey, and a number of schools, monasteries, and nunneries in Russia to which he regularly gives funds.

TV punch-ups are not uncommon in Russia, where reality TV shows often dissolve into brawls. On one episode of Dom-2, a show modelled on the UK’s Big Brother, a contestant was hospitalised last year with concussion after another participant smashed her head on the kitchen floor.

However, Mr Lebedev has been subjected to unprecedented legal scrutiny after punching real estate mogul Sergei Polonsky – scrutiny he says is likely due to his opposition politics and the fact that he funds Novaya Gazeta, a Moscow newspaper famed for its exposés of Kremlin corruption.

Mr Lebedev – formerly a KGB officer based in London – also owns the London newspapers The Evening Standard and the Independent.

He and Mr Polonsky had never met, though bad blood between them had built up after Mr Lebedev, a member of Russia’s parliament until 2007, investigated Mr Polonsky, alleging corrupt real estate dealings. Mr Polonsky had spent the better part of the show insulting his counterpart, who claims he acted in “self defence”.

According to the text of an indictment against Mr Lebedev, it took seven investigators and more than 14 months to prepare the case. This, thinks Mr Lebedev, was excessive. “It is a pretty simple case with 120 witnesses sitting in the room,” he said, referring to the studio audience present during the fight, broadcast in September 2011.

And rather than charge Mr Lebedev for simple assault, Russian prosecutors are bringing a charge of “hooliganism motivated by by religious, political, racial, ethnic or ideological hatred”. The trial could start as early as start next month.

Mr Lebedev says that for the prosecution’s hooliganism charge to stick, they have to prove that he acted out of “hatred”.

“How can you hate somebody you’ve seen only once in your life?” Mr Lebedev asks. “Contact consisted of his offer to hit me in the face, and several gestures, and a few very rude words” before the programme started, he said.

Mr Polonsky could not be reached because he is in a Cambodian prison. He was allegedly involved in an altercation on New Year’s eve in which Cambodian police say he and a group of friends held six sailors hostage at knifepoint and then forced them to jump into the ocean after a rowdy night at an island retreat.

Mr Polonsky has a different version on his blog, but admits that he acted “emotionally” in the Cambodia incident. His Moscow lawyer declined to return phone calls.

“Hooliganism” is a politically tinged word, evoking political trials of Soviet dissidents. The ill-defined character of Russian law makes it perfect for judges who “need to convict”, according to Alexei Makarkin of the Moscow based Centre for Political Technologies, a think-tank.

“If desired, you can prove anything you want,” he said. “There are the most unusual precedents in these cases, when it comes to cases of political hue.”

He said hooliganism was often used in politically motivated prosecutions of dissidents, notably in the case of Vladimir Bukovsky, now living in Cambridge, who was convicted of anti-Soviet behaviour combined with hooliganism in 1975.

“It is easy to prove and a flexible law. You can use it to sentence someone to 10 hours of community service, all the way up to five years in prison,” said Mr Makarkin.

Last August, feminist punk group Pussy Riot was also convicted of hooliganism for playing an obscenity laced song in Moscow’s Christ the Saviour Cathedral.

Mr Lebedev says his opposition views and funding of Novaya Gazeta have earned him a number of enemies. One of these, he believes, is Alexander Bastrykin, head of the law enforcement agency that charged him in September 2012. Mr Lebedev thinks this was payback for a July 2012 incident in which an editor at Novaya Gazeta accused Mr Bastrykin of threatening his life over an article.

A few days later, Mr Bastrykin and Novaya Gazeta’s editor-in-chief, Dmitry Muratov, agreed to settle their differences, and – quite out of character in Russia’s testosterone filled public life – proceeded to hug.

“I said, oh the guy was tired, the guy was drunk, lets forget about it,” said Mr Lebedev, who believes Mr Bastrykin nonetheless set out to get revenge.

Mr Bastrykin has not commented on the incident since, and was not available for further comment.

Mr Lebedev said that for several months now he has not been funding Novaya Gazeta “because they are self sufficient”, although this appears to be a calculated step aimed at softening his opposition profile until the heat blows over.

The trial is being held up by the problem of informing Mr Polonsky in the proper manner while he remains in prison, though technically his presence at the trial is not required. Mr Lebedev has offered to put up Mr Polonsky’s bail so he can appear at the trial.

Asked if he is sorry for hitting Mr Polonsky, the oligarch is oblique. “I am sorry for being seen as an aggressive individual who hits people without any reason. But if you look at the reasons, then there is a completely different explanation.”

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. You may share using our article tools.
Please don't cut articles from and redistribute by email or post to the web.

  • Share
  • Print
  • Clip
  • Gift Article
  • Comments


Sign up to Brussels Briefing, the FT's daily insight on Europe.

Sign up now


Sign up for email briefings to stay up to date on topics you are interested in