Russian tycoon Lebedev likens trial to political witch-hunt

One of Russia’s richest men, on trial for hitting a property developer during a television show, says charges of hooliganism against him are motivated by his criticisms of President Vladimir Putin.

MOSCOW – Russian banker and media magnate Alexander Lebedev on Wednesday likened his trial for throwing a punch during a television chat show to a political witch-hunt and said the charge of hooliganism leveled against him was baseless.

The backer of Britain's Independent and London Evening Standard newspapers was charged in September with hooliganism motivated by religious, political, racial, ethnic or ideological hatred. He could be jailed for up to five years if convicted.

Lebedev said he would attend the first pre-trial hearing on Thursday into the 2011 incident, where he rose from his chair and threw a punch at property developer Sergei Polonsky.

Lebedev, whose fortune was put at $1.1 billion by Forbes magazine last year, has said he is being made a scapegoat for criticizing President Vladimir Putin.

"We have people like McCarthy at various echelons of the establishment including law enforcement agencies," he said on Wednesday. "This is the case where they fabricated an accusation built completely not on law."

U.S. Republican Senator Joseph McCarthy became infamous for launching investigations into claims that Communists had infiltrated the government. He held extensive hearings in 1953-54 attempting to uncover Communist sympathizers before a sudden fall from political grace.

"The hooliganism accusation ... is based on nothing, on air, because how on earth could I have prepared a gross violation of public order based on political hatred to a person I'd never seen in my life?" Lebedev told Reuters in a telephone interview.

"It is completely baseless from a legal point of view; the accusation, it's empty."

In a statement issued earlier this month, federal investigators said the criminal case against Lebedev had been sent to Moscow's Ostankino district court for trial.

"[He] beat Sergey Polonsky, his opponent in the program, two times in his head using a pretext of little significance," said the statement's official English translation. "Polonsky fell from a chair."

The trial is expected to start in February and a verdict is likely in March or April, Lebedev said.

Asked whether he thought he had a chance of winning, Lebedev said by telephone: "Yes, I think so. I wouldn't exclude it."

Russian authorities have arrested or charged a number of people critical of the Kremlin, including several opposition leaders such as anti-corruption blogger and protest leader Alexei Navalny.

"Let's say we want to get a firm acquittal, which is, we want to win the case," Lebedev said.

"Of course we have to take into consideration that hooliganism is a serious accusation, potentially facing five years in prison, and Russian courts are not very used to judges acquitting somebody."

Preliminary hearings will likely be closed to the public. Lebedev anticipated the case could go to appeal and then before the high court and could take nine or 10 months in total.

Lebedev's business interests in Russia include a bank and real estate assets, a stake the airline Aeroflot and a potato farm. He has said he is looking into selling his Russian assets because of pressure from the Kremlin.

Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov has denied the Kremlin has attempted to put pressure on Lebedev or other wealthy Russians over their business interests.

In a separate incident, Polonsky was detained in Cambodia this month, accused of assault and illegal detention after an incident on a boat. He could face up to three years in prison if convicted.