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Kremlin critic Lebedev: Why I lashed out on TV chat show

By Phil Black and Peter Wilkinson, CNN
updated 8:38 AM EDT, Mon October 1, 2012
  • Alexander Lebedev charged with hooliganism after punching guest on TV show
  • Billionaire and Kremlin critic faces five years in prison for attacking businessman
  • Lebedev says he acted in self-defense when he launched his assault
  • Charge is politically motivated and unsubstantiated, Lebedev says

Moscow (CNN) -- Russian billionaire businessman and outspoken Kremlin critic Alexander Lebedev has dismissed a charge of hooliganism and assault filed against him after he punched a fellow guest on a television show last year as unsubstantiated and "clearly a political act."

The part-owner of Russian opposition newspaper Novaya Gazeta, whose son Evgeny owns Britain's Independent and Evening Standard, faces five years in prison for attacking businessman Sergey Polonsky on the "NTVshniki" show, which aired on September 16, 2011.

In an exclusive interview with CNN, Lebedev conceded he may have gone too far but insisted he was acting in self-defense when he launched his extraordinary assault on Polonsky. "I felt threatened," he said. "My point was I need to stop it otherwise it's going to go into not only an insult and intimidation but a hit in the face.

"I might have over-reacted: normally I'm a very quiet person ... I was not looking for any violation of public order."

'My father's done nothing wrong'

Lebedev, who was described by the Investigative Committee as a lawmaker in the Kirov region, has been charged with hooliganism and assault motivated by political hatred, the same offense for which members of punk band Pussy Riot were jailed this year. On Monday the band members launched an appeal against their sentence, which followed their performance of a song critical of President Vladimir Putin in one of Moscow's grandest cathedrals.

The Pussy Riot charges sparked international concern about freedom of speech in Russia, and Lebedev said his case is similar. "How could political hatred emerge from a completely cut-out and edited discussion about some murky subject of the world economic crisis? Why should it be considered hooliganism? It's the same as the Pussy Riot case. It's clearly a political case. All motivation is political; everything else is fabrication."

He said the charge against him is "completely unsubstantiated but carrying a heavy sentence and prison." He said he could have left the country but wanted to stay in Russia to fight the charges and air his concerns about the political direction of his country.

Questioned if it is true that wealthy Russian businessmen should not get involved in politics if they want to stay on the right side of the Kremlin, Lebedev agreed. "It's a rule. It clearly exists," he said. "I thought I'm not a politician, just a publisher of a paper and I'm also a citizen who might, from time to time, voice concerns about things.

"I'm still defending the position that it would be much wiser for Putin to install real European quality, adapted to Russian realities and institutions with competition between political forces."

He said he is prepared to pay a heavy price for his principles, but hopes he won't go to prison. In the meantime, "I'll stay and face the charges and go for a trial."

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