MOSCOW, March 17 (RIA Novosti) - A Moscow court rejected on Tuesday a request from defense lawyers to drop new embezzlement charges against Yukos founder Mikhail Khodorkovsky and his business partner.
Khodorkovsky and Platon Lebedev, serving prison terms on tax evasion and theft convictions described by many critics as politically motivated, now face a new trial, on charges of embezzlement and money laundering totaling about $50 billion.
The court also rejected the defense's request to return the case for further investigation, and scheduled hearings on the new charges on March 31.
Preliminary hearings in the new case against Khodorkovsky, 45, and Lebedev, 42, who are serving eight-year sentences, started in Moscow on March 3. The defense lawyers have described the charges as "ridiculous" and said prosecutors had no evidence to support their case.
On Tuesday, lawyers said in a joint statement: "How can the charge of stealing 350 million tons of oil exist, if this insane case's 188 volumes [of case materials] contain no document, no line, no hint as to even one missing ton or kilogram?"
The request to suspend confinement for the former businessmen during the trial was also turned down, as was a request to remove part of embezzlement charges due to the expiry of the period of limitation.
"The court has ruled to turn down all the appeals lodged by the defense during the preliminary hearings," the Moscow City Court's press secretary Anna Usachyova said.
A lawyer acting for Khodorkovsky, Vadim Klyuvgant, said the defense had not decided if it would appeal the court rulings. Klyuvgant said most appeals had been rejected as premature.
Lebedev's lawyer, Yelena Liptser, said Moscow's Khamovniki Court would be unable to bring a just verdict on the second set of charges, as there had been numerous violations during the investigation, as well as during preliminary hearings.
"There were so many violations that it makes it impossible to bring a fair ruling, and this outrage should be stopped," she said, adding that an appeal would be made to the European Court of Human Rights if her client was convicted on the second set of charges.
The defense team acting for the Yukos founder and his business partner earlier said they planned to summon Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin to testify.
"Kudrin signed a series of regulatory documents ... Being law-abiding citizens, Khodorkovsky and Lebedev were guided by them [in their business decisions], and we would like Kudrin to give testimony at the trial," Konstantin Rivkin, who is acting for Lebedev, said on March 11, without elaborating further.
The lawyers earlier demanded the removal of prosecutors Dmitry Shokhin and Valery Lakhtin from the case, saying they had been involved in the businessmen's first trial and were biased.
They also accused the presiding judge of bias and requested his dismissal. Viktor Danilkin refused to step down, saying there were no grounds for him to do so.
Once Russia's largest oil producer, Yukos collapsed after charges of tax evasion led to the company being broken up and sold off to meet debts. The bulk of the company's assets were bought up by state-run oil company Rosneft.