Court hears defamation case against Putin
Moscow - A Moscow court on Monday began hearing a civil defamation suit against Vladimir Putin after the Russian prime minister used a TV call-in show to accuse his political enemies of stealing from the state.
Putin claimed in December that a group of opponents who were once in the government or parliament took billions from state coffers in the 1990s.
He said former Deputy Prime Minister Boris Nemtsov, once-Deputy Energy Minister Vladimir Milov and ex-independent lawmaker Vladimir Ryzhkov had gone broke and were now seeking power again to fill their pockets.
Before Monday's court hearing Nemtsov, now the country's highest-profile opposition activist, told The Associated Press that he doesn't expect to win but said the fact the suit was even admitted is a victory.
In the call-in show, Putin was asked what the three are pursuing.
"Money and power, what else do they want?" he said. "In their day they wrought havoc, in the 90s, (and) they stole quite a few billion along with the Berezovskys and others who are now in prison," he said, referring to Boris Berezovsky, the London-based tycoon who made his riches in the post-Soviet privatisation period and fled in 2000 after falling out with Putin.
"They've been deprived of the hand that feeds them, they've gone broke and now they want to come back and fill their pockets. But I think if we let them do that, they won't stop at a few billion, and they'll sell out the whole of Russia."
Allowing a lawsuit against Putin is out of character for Russia's Kremlin-loyal courts, where the big decisions are thought to be dictated from above.
Observers say it may be a move to salvage a sliver of objectivity for the courts at a time when their reputation has been all but eroded.
December saw the second conviction of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, formerly the country's richest man, on charges widely considered to be politically motivated.
Khodorkovsky, who funded opposition parties and negotiated with foreign companies over the sale of prized energy assets before his 2003 arrest, was effectively consigned to a second prison term when Putin suggested in the same call-in show that he belongs behind bars.
Days after the Khodorkovsky sentence, Nemtsov got 15 days in prison over for participation in an unsanctioned rally, charges he called absurd. Nemtsov was arrested on December 31 after leaving an authorised anti-Putin demonstration.
President Dmitry Medvedev made an inauguration vow in 2008 to address what he called "legal nihilism", but there has been little change evident.