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Russia media tycoon goes on trial for assault

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(Globalpost/GlobalPost)

Russian media magnate Alexander Lebedev, who owns newspapers in Russia and Britain, went on trial Thursday for assault against a fellow tycoon but the judge sent the case back to prosecutors to rectify procedural violations.

The decision was a temporary respite for Lebedev, who could be jailed for up to five years on charges of assault and hooliganism for the bizarre attack during a televised talk show.

Lebedev, who has repeatedly complained of pressure from Kremlin-linked security services, punched Sergei Polonsky, an outspoken real estate tycoon, during an argument on a Russian talk show in September 2011.

The 53-year-old co-owner of Russia's top opposition newspaper Novaya Gazeta and Britain's The Evening Standard and The Independent newspapers, dismissed the charges as a fabrication as he attended the hearing at a court in Moscow.

"I think it is made-up from start to finish," Lebedev told reporters in the courthouse, wrapped in a dark overcoat but sporting his usual light suntan.

There is expected to be a pause of several weeks as the prosecutors resubmit the case to the court after failing to formally notify the defence that the trial process was underway.

In a bizarre twist, the aggrieved party Polonsky was not present for the hearing as he has been detained in Cambodia since December 31 on suspicion of inflicting violence on a group of local boatmen.

Polonsky's flamboyant stunts and racy business slogans have repeatedly raised eyebrows in the past.

Despite the sparring between showmen lawyers and the fact that the plaintiff is behind bars in Cambodia jail, the colourful case nevertheless carries potentially serious consequences for Lebedev.

He faces two charges: hooliganism motivated by social or political hatred, which carries a maximum five-year jail term, and assault, which carries a penalty of up to two years.

The charge of hooliganism motivated by political, ideological, racial, national or religious hatred, or hatred of a particular social group, was used to sentence three members of punk band Pussy Riot to two years in prison last year, although one of them was unexpectedly released with a suspended sentence.

Lebedev's son Evgeny, who lives in London, has warned that his father risks being assassinated if he is sent to jail.

Polonsky's defence team insists that Lebedev should be held accountable for his actions.

"Evil should be punished," said lawyer Vadim Samsonov.

"Can you in our country during a political discussion come up and hit someone from behind?" added his colleague Alexander Dobrovinsky. "We are awaiting an answer to that question."

Dobrovinsky said the case had been returned to prosecutors for the "removal of the breaches that the prosecutors allowed."

"The prosecutor's office has 10 days to appeal today's ruling," he told reporters.

Lebedev's defence lawyer, Genri Reznik, asked when the next hearing might take place, told AFP: "You can live peacefully for three weeks."

Lebedev said he was ready to bail out Polonsky out of the Cambodian jail but his lawyer added that Cambodian authorities had not agreed to the amount offered.

"We are only concerned now about how to help him," Reznik said.

Lebedev, who co-owns Russia's vehemently anti-Kremlin Novaya Gazeta newspaper along with the last Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, has turned increasingly critical of the Russian authorities in the last years.

The bank he owns has been raided by the Russian authorities in a separate probe while the aviation authorities also ordered his airline Red Wings to halt operations after a crash that killed five crew members.

While television pictures clearly show Lebedev punching Polonsky on the chat show, his legal team is expected to argue the actions did not amount to criminal assault.

Lebedev, a former intelligence agent, justified the assault by saying Polonsky had behaved in an aggressive, threatening manner throughout the television debate.

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http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/afp/130207/russia-media-tycoon-goes-trial-assault-0