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    Khodorkovsky must return to Moscow for new probe - lawyer

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    The former head of the bankrupt oil company Yukos and his business partner must be transferred to Moscow for the investigation of a new money laundering case, Mikhail Khodorkovsky's lawyer said Tuesday.

    MOSCOW, March 20 (RIA Novosti) - The former head of the bankrupt oil company Yukos and his business partner must be transferred to Moscow for the investigation of a new money laundering case, Mikhail Khodorkovsky's lawyer said Tuesday.

    Moscow's Basmanny Court ruled earlier Tuesday that a preliminary investigation in East Siberia into the new criminal case against Khodorkovsky and Platon Lebedev is illegal.

    Yury Shmidt said: "If the court's ruling comes into force, Khodorkovsky and Lebedev must be transferred to Moscow [from Siberia]."

    The court granted an appeal by Khodorkovsky's and Lebedev's lawyers demanding that the investigation be conducted in Moscow.

    Khodorkovsky and Lebedev, both of whom are serving eight-year sentences in East Siberia for fraud and tax evasion, were charged with money laundering February 5. In mid-December they were transferred to a pre-trial investigation center near the city of Chita at the demand of the Prosecutor General's Office.

    The Prosecutor General's Office is now accusing Khodorkovsky and Lebedev of stealing $32-billion-worth of oil from Samaraneftegaz, Yuganskneftegaz and Tomskneft in 1998-2003, which the two businessmen allegedly documented as "oil-well liquid."

    Prosecutors said Khodorkovsky and Lebedev later resold the oil to end customers for triple the price via bogus firms registered both inside and outside Russia. The scheme helped launder a total of 450 billion rubles ($17 billion) and $7.5 billion, prosecutors said.

    The Basmanny Court said the investigation cannot be conducted in Chita as that would be a violation of the constitutional right of defense.

    The Prosecutor General's Office may appeal against the ruling within 10 days, as it has not come into effect yet.

    Shmidt said earlier that Khodorkovsky and Lebedev do not admit their guilt and consider the new charges "absurd and mad."

    The Prosecutor General's Office also alleges that Khodorkovsky and Lebedev are guilty of embezzling receipts from Yukos subsidiaries Fargoil and Ratibor, and of laundering the money through the Open Russia Foundation, a charitable organization established by Khodorkovsky in 2001 as a private endowment to assist academic institutions and non-governmental organizations in Russia.

    Khodorkovsky, who acquired oil assets through controversial privatization deals in the early-1990s, has insisted his prosecution was orchestrated by the authorities to silence his criticism of President Vladimir Putin and as part of a campaign to bring mineral assets under Kremlin control.

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