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Putin accuses jailed tycoon of murder

Television show hears prime minister say Khodorkovsky's empire will be sold to help poorest.

MOSCOW // In an unusual detour in his annual televised call-in show yesterday, Vladimir Putin, the Russian prime minister, implicated the jailed tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky in a series of murders and announced that the sale of the businessman's empire was earmarked to help some of Russia's poorest citizens deal with housing problems.

In his eighth consecutive live question-and-answer session - called A Conversation With Vladimir Putin - the Russian premier spent more than three hours sticking largely to domestic issues and reassuring his compatriots about their future during a time of economic turbulence, at times promising to personally intervene with regional officials to solve individual's problems. The call-in shows were a hallmark of Mr Putin's eight-year presidency, and he maintained the tradition after stepping down last year and becoming prime minister, highlighting what many see as his continuing pre-eminence in Russian politics, despite the fact that he formally reports to his hand-picked successor, Dmitry Medvedev, the Russian president.

In the last hour of the show, the moderator relayed a curt question from a viewer about when authorities might release Khodorkovsky, once Russia's richest man and who is serving an eight-year prison sentence on fraud and tax evasion charges he claims were orchestrated by the Kremlin to seize his Yukos oil empire. Mr Putin often becomes visibly testy when ambushed with questions about Khodorkovsky, whose 2003 arrest and conviction two years later is widely seen as the seminal event in his presidency, in which Russia's oligarchs risked prison or exile if they did not toe the Kremlin line and vital parts of the economy were brought under state control.

Mr Putin's annual call-in shows, however, always appear to be tightly scripted affairs, and the Russian premier was ready for the question about Khodorkovsky, though he did not directly address his possible release. Instead, Mr Putin accused Yukos shareholders, of which Khodorkovsky was the largest, of ordering the murders of numerous opponents, crimes for which the company's former head of security, Alexei Pichugin, is currently serving a life sentence.

"What do you think, that he was acting on his own initiative, out of his own fear and risk," Mr Putin said. "He did not have any concrete interests, he is not the main shareholder in the company. It's clear that he was acting in the interests on the orders of his bosses ? and how he acted. They only managed to prove five murders." Contacted by telephone yesterday, Mr Pichugin's lawyer, Dmitry Kurepin, maintained there was no evidence whatsoever linking his client to the crimes.

Mr Putin's comments about Khodorkovsky came just two days after the company's former owners announced they had won a court ruling in The Hague that could allow them to claim US$100 billion (Dh367bn) in damages against the Russian government for the way Yukos was dismantled. Asked about Khodorkovsky last week by French reporters on an official visit to Paris, Mr Putin said the case was a matter for law enforcement authorities and the courts and compared the jailed businessman to the convicted US fraudster Bernard Madoff. In a populist announcement, Mr Putin said in yesterday's call-in show that the proceeds obtained by the government in the Yukos sell-off were used to form an $8 billion (Dh29.3bn) fund that has already helped 10 million Russians repair dilapidated homes and flats and that will be used to move 150,000 more "from slums into new homes".

Throughout his marathon session, Mr Putin took questions via video link-up from several areas hit hard by the economic crisis, particularly company towns whose factories are being shuttered. A man in the studio audience asked the Russian premier why factory owners who are not able to maintain jobs despite government assistance are not jailed. "If we jail everyone who will work?" Mr Putin replied, stressing the importance of proper organisation to ensure profits.

Mr Putin said Russia had overcome "the peak" of the economic crisis but that tough times were still ahead. The inevitable question of Mr Putin's possible return to the presidency came up yesterday. "I will think about it, there is still enough time," he said. A man named Leonid asked if the premier planned to leave politics and if he would consider swapping jobs with him. "Don't hold your breath," Mr Putin said.

Many believe Mr Medvedev will step aside for Mr Putin in 2010 rather than run for a second term. The Russian president said in Italy yesterday, however, that "if Putin doesn't rule out running, neither do I rule myself out". Mr Putin yesterday said terrorism remained a threat in Russia following the bombing of a Moscow-St Petersburg train last week that left 26 people dead and almost 100 injured. He added, however, that the country has enough "resolve and firmness" to deal with such threats.

The show was peppered with breathless updates by a female moderator on the number of questions (more than two million) that flowed in from across the country via telephone, e-mail and text messages. Mr Putin's call-in shows traditionally have a smattering of colourful moments. During last year's show he wryly admitted to a caller that he made a crude anatomical suggestion to the French President Nicolas Sarkozy about how Mikheil Saakashvili, the Georgian president, should be strung up for his role in last year's Russian-Georgian war over South Ossetia.

Yesterday, he was asked what he thought about the lavish spending habits of Russia's nouveau riche, highlighted by an incident outside Geneva last month in which a Russian student crashed his Lamborghini while allegedly drunkenly racing his Russian friends, who were also driving expensive cars. An elderly German man driving another car was seriously injured in the accident. "In Soviet times some of our rich showed off their wealth by having gold teeth put in preferably at the front," Mr Putin said. "The Lamborghinis and other pricey knicknacks - they are simply today's gold teeth."

Mr Putin, who once described media reports of his alleged extraordinary personal wealth as rubbish "excavated from someone's nose and then spread on those bits of paper", declared an income of 4,622,400 roubles (Dh579,000) last year. cschreck@thenational.ae