* Lebedev portrays trial as political revenge
* Says he threw punches in TV talks show in self-defence
* Billionaire is financial backer of two British newspapers
By Timothy Heritage
MOSCOW, May 7 Russian media magnate Alexander
Lebedev goes on trial on Tuesday in a case he portrays as
President Vladimir Putin's revenge for criticising the Kremlin
and a warning to other rich businessmen.
The financial backer of Britain's Independent and London
Evening Standard newspapers faces up to five years in jail if he
is convicted on charges of hooliganism and political hatred over
a televised punch-up in 2011.
The powerfully built multi-millionaire jumped out of his
chair and hurled punches at property developer Sergei Polonsky
who had goaded Lebedev during the recording of a television talk
show. Polonsky was knocked backwards and off the studio podium.
Lebedev, who co-owns Russia's main campaigning newspaper
with former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, says he acted in
self-defence. But, he says, the scuffle is being used as a
pretext to silence him and he expects to go to jail.
"I have to be ready for that or why did they come after me
with hooliganism charges?" Lebedev said in a recent telephone
interview as he prepared for the trial in a Moscow court.
He is rare among the rich businessmen known as oligarchs in
speaking out against the Kremlin since the imprisonment of oil
tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who was arrested in 2003 after he
fell out with Putin and remains jailed.
Lebedev says the case is part of a broader clampdown on
Putin's opponents, and accuses criminal investigators of acting
on the Kremlin's orders to punish him for campaigning against
corruption and showing sympathy with the opposition.
"I know the position of the president," Lebedev said in
another interview with Reuters. "He thinks it is true that I
have been funding (the opposition), so I was violating rule No.
1 - if you have money you should not interfere (in politics)."
Lawyers for Polonsky, a one-time billionaire, have described
Lebedev as a fantasist. But Polonsky could also go to jail - he
was detained in Cambodia in January, accused of assault and
illegal detention after an incident on a boat there.
PUTIN SAYS NO CRACKDOWN
Putin referred to Lebedev's behaviour as "hooliganism" soon
after the punch-up, playing on many Russians' resentment of the
oligarchs who made vast fortunes as most others struggled during
and after the Soviet Union's collapse in 1991.
Such resentment means few Russians are likely to have
sympathy with Lebedev.
Putin, who returned to the Kremlin a year ago after the
biggest protests of his 13-year rule, has also denied using the
courts for political ends even though several opponents face
criminal charges which they say are politically motivated.
"Those who fight against corruption must be crystal clean
themselves, otherwise they just engage in political
self-promotion," Putin said in comments shown nationwide last
Lebedev is a former KGB agent who made billions trading
stocks and bonds after the Soviet Union fell apart in 1991 but
he fell off Forbes magazine's list of billionaires this year. It
had put his net worth at $1.1 billion in 2012.
His business interests in Russia include a bank, National
Reserve Corporation, real estate assets and a potato farm. He
has said he is looking to sell his Russian assets because of
pressure from the Kremlin but made clear he was having trouble
doing so because he had fallen out of favour.
He and the newspaper he co-owns, Novaya Gazeta, have spoken
out against state corruption and criticised the Kremlin,
ignoring the fate suffered by Khodorkovsky, who was jailed on
charges of fraud and tax evasion. Khodorkovsky's Yukos oil
company was broken up and sold off, mainly into state hands.
Since then, other oligarchs have chosen to toe the Kremlin
line or flee the country. Big legal cases involving the
oligarchs have mostly been fought in foreign courts.
(Additional reporting by Megan Davies; Editing by Jon Hemming)