Lebedev 'Braced For Prison' Over TV Punch-Up

Katie Stallard, Moscow Correspondent

Newspaper tycoon Alexander Lebedev has told Sky News he is bracing himself for the possibility of being sent to prison, after a televised punch-up with another oligarch on TV which has seen him charged with politically-motivated hooliganism.

Speaking outside Moscow's Ostankinsky court, Mr Lebedev said he would fight the charges, but that he was also preparing himself for the worst.

"I have to brace myself for it, because of the mere fact that we don't have a lot of acquittals in Russian courts unfortunately on hooliganism (charges), but we are definitely looking at winning the case," he said.

The former KGB spy does not deny that he punched property magnate Sergei Polonsky, knocking him off his stool, during a recorded studio debate on NTV, a Kremlin-controlled TV channel, in 2011.

But he claims it was in self-defence, and that the case against him has more to do with his stake in Novaya Gazeta, one of the only independent newspapers in Russia, and a prominent critic of the Putin administration.

Mr Lebedev is being prosecuted under a section of the same law used to convict feminist punk band Pussy Riot last year so as well as straightforward assault charges, he is also accused of "hooliganism motivated by political hatred".

The charge carries a maximum sentence of five years.

He said the case was clearly absurd: "The accusation is not based on law at all, you can never prove that I had any political hatred which emerged during the programme because I haven't even talked to him (Polonsky), he doesn't have any political views, at least not that I am aware of.

"I don’t have any political views, we haven't had a discussion - so how can you prove that I have any political hatred?"

Mr Lebedev likened his trial to a McCarthyite witch hunt, but offered an olive branch to the administration, pointedly refusing to lay the blame at President Putin's door. 

"When Senator McCarthy was doing the witch hunt in America, there were two presidents - one was Truman, the other one Eisenhower - nobody blamed on them what McCarthy was doing, so probably we have some McCarthys here in the country - what on earth they are doing? We don't put the blame on the political authority."

The billionaire tycoon's interests include a Russian bank and a significant stake in the national airline, Aeroflot, as well as the London Evening Standard, which he bought in 2009, famously telling reporters he had read it daily as a young Russian spy posted to London in his earlier career.

He went on to buy The Independent, but says both titles are now owned by his London-based son, Evgeny Lebedev, and that they will be protected should he be sent to prison.

The case has been adjourned until February 7, but they may have trouble summoning the main prosecution witness - Sergei Polonsky.

Mr Polonsky is currently under arrest in Cambodia, where he is accused of kidnapping local sailors aboard a boat he hired during what appears to have been a particularly lively holiday.

The controversial tycoon is well known in Russia for his unusual antics, which have included eating part of his tie after losing a bet, naming both his son and his dog after his company - Mirax - and sacking 90% of his company over the course of one year after being told to make cutbacks.

Mr Lebedev said that he had offered to pay Mr Polansky's bail, but that the oligarch had refused to accept the money.

He said court documents showed that Mr Polansky did not wish to pursue the case, but a source close to Mr Lebedev explained that, even if Mr Polansky refused to press charges, the state could still pursue him on the more serious charge of hooliganism.

Mr Lebedev has many powerful enemies in Russia, not least among the ranks of the criminal and the corrupt, whose dealings his newspaper investigates.

He has said he fears for his safety if he is sent to prison.