It’s one thing if Western journalists and Yukos PR henchmen – if there is indeed any difference – shill for all they’re worth about the travails of Khodorkovsky, the former oligarch doing time for fleecing the Russian Treasury to the tune of billions of dollars, charges he sooner boasts about than denies when given the opportunity to address Russians on national TV. It’s quite another when many ordinary Russians begin to lap up their lies, with a disturbing 10% describing him as a political prisoner in a recent VCIOM poll, and opinions are split 50/50 on a Presidential pardon. Congrats to the PR team, I guess.
Fortunately, at least some court systems still keep their judgments partitioned from the demands of self-interested businesspeople, their PR hacks, libertarians who believe that money should be able to buy a Not Guilty verdict, liberals operating under the delusion MBK is a popular and legitimate political opponent of Putin, etc. According to four (by my count) judgments to date, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) is one such institution. The Yukos team managed to get their cases heard at Europe’s highest court of appeal, and they decided that – barring a few administrative irregularities, for which Khodorkovsky was awarded a paltry $35,000 – there was no proof for any of his allegations that the case was politically motivated. This is despite the fact that the ECHR can in no sense be having a Russian government-friendly stance, given the numbers of judgments that have gone against it there.
To wit, despite the swarms of high-profile lawyers batting for Khodorkovsky, they could (1) neither prove that Khodorkovsky didn’t engage in tax evasion – to the contrary, the ECHR sided with Russia’s arguments; (2) not could they evidence their claims that it was a case of selective prosecution, i.e. that MBK’s schemes were prevalent at the time; indeed, the ECHR judges even went so far as to point out that rich businesspeople like MBK have the position and incentive to claim that prosecutions are politically motivated, whereas courts of law need concrete evidence as opposed to the opinions and aspersions that journalists and politicians are free to indulge in.
Nonetheless, op-eds of the WSJ, FT, etc. continue to gloss over the ECHR judgments where they do not ignore them altogether, and paint Khodorkovsky as some kind of principled human rights champion standing up to the dark Chekists who surround Putin (this despite that his right-hand security man Pichugin was convicted to life for contract murders). Masha Gessen, a particularly mendacious piece of work even by the sordid standards of Western journalism on Russia, claimed that the ECHR judgments could even be “read as mandating [Khodorkovsky’s] release” in a 5 page hagiography for Vanity Fair.
Since these people seem to feel safe in assuming that no-one will ever read the ECHR judgments (depressingly, it seems to be a valid assumption), I am doing what I can to expose their lies by reprinting the most relevant parts here. Bits of particular interest are bolded.
CASE OF KHODORKOVSKIY v. RUSSIA, 28/11/2011 [AK: As regards whether MBK’s prosecution is politically motivated]
VIII. ALLEGED VIOLATION OF ARTICLE 18 OF THE CONVENTION
249. The applicant complained under Article 18 that the State had used the criminal prosecution for a political end and in order to appropriate the company’s assets. Article 18 of the Convention provides:
“The restrictions permitted under [the] Convention to the said rights and freedoms shall not be applied for any purpose other than those for which they have been prescribed.”
A. The parties’ observations
250. The Government submitted that the applicant’s allegations that his criminal prosecution had been politically motivated were not supported by the materials of the case. The Government referred to the judgment delivered in the applicant’s case as proof that the charges against him were serious and genuine. They also described the events which had preceded the start of the investigation into the activities of the Yukos management, especially with regard to the Apatit case.
251. The applicant maintained his allegation that his criminal prosecution had been politically motivated. The applicant submitted that the above materials were powerful evidence of ulterior purposes contrary to Article 18. He had at the very least adduced “prima facie evidence pointing towards the violation of that provision” (Oates v. Poland (dec.), no. 35036/97, 11 May 2000), which the Government had entirely failed to address. The fact that he had been convicted in no way precluded improper motives in bringing the charges. Further, as a matter of Convention law, it was immaterial whether there was evidence justifying the bringing of the prosecution, if, as a matter of fact, it was brought for “other purposes” (see Gusinskiy v Russia, no. 70726/01, 19 May 2004). Indeed, the fact that he had received a long sentence supported the inference of political motivation. The travaux préparatoires for Article 18 indicated that the drafters of this provision were concerned to ensure that an individual was thereby protected from the imposition of restrictions arising from a desire of the State to protect itself according “to the political tendency which it represents” and the desire of the State to act “against an opposition which it considers dangerous”. The applicant maintained his argument that his arrest and consequent detention on 25 October, just a few weeks before the Duma elections on 7 December 2003 and shortly before the completion of the Sibneft/Yukos merger, had been orchestrated by the State to take action against an opposition which it considered “dangerous”, contrary to Article 18.
252. The applicant asserted that those activities had been perceived by the leadership of the country as a breach of loyalty and a threat to national economic security. As a counter-measure the authorities had undertaken a massive attack on the applicant and his company, colleagues and friends.
253. In support of his allegations the applicant submitted reports from international and Russian media, various governmental and non-governmental organisations, the PACE report “On the circumstances surrounding the arrest and prosecution of leading Yukos executives” (published on 29 November 2004 by Mrs Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger, the Special Rapporteur for the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe), the US Senate resolutions on this subject, European Parliament reports, documents of the UK House of Commons, decisions by the UK courts in cases of extradition of several former Yukos managers to Russia, and decisions by the Cypriot, Dutch, and Swiss courts to the effect that the prosecution of the applicant was politically motivated. In particular, the applicant referred to the words of the Swiss Federal Tribunal, which in August 2007 found that the facts, if analysed together, “clearly corroborate the suspicion that criminal proceedings have indeed been used as an instrument by the power in place, with the goal of bringing to heel the class of rich ‘oligarchs’ and sidelining potential or declared political adversaries”. The applicant also quoted public statements by several high-ranking Russian officials who had acknowledged that “the Yukos case” had political overtones (Mr Gref, Mr Illarionov, Mr Shuvalov, Mr Mironov, Mr Kasyanov and some others). The applicant produced witness statements by several former Yukos managers. He further referred to his submissions within the case Khodorkovskiy v. Russia (no. 2), no. 11082/06, which contain a more detailed analysis of his political activities and business projects.
B. The Court’s assessment
254. The Court reiterates that it has already found that, at least in one respect, the authorities were driven by improper reasons. Thus, the Court found that the applicant had been arrested in Novosibirsk not as a witness but rather as a suspect. However, the applicant’s claim under Article 18 is different from his grievances under Article 5. The applicant maintained that the entire criminal prosecution of Yukos managers, including himself, had been politically and economically motivated. The Court reiterates in this respect that “Article 18 of the Convention does not have an autonomous role. It can only be applied in conjunction with other Articles of the Convention” (Gusinskiy v. Russia, no. 70276/01, § 75, ECHR 2004-IV). In the light of the above the Court will consider the applicant’s allegations under Article 18 of the Convention in conjunction with his complaints under Article 5 of the Convention, cited above.
255. The Court reiterates that the whole structure of the Convention rests on the general assumption that public authorities in the member States act in good faith. Indeed, any public policy or an individual measure may have a “hidden agenda”, and the presumption of good faith is rebuttable. However, an applicant alleging that his rights and freedoms were limited for an improper reason must convincingly show that the real aim of the authorities was not the same as that proclaimed (or as can be reasonably inferred from the context). A mere suspicion that the authorities used their powers for some other purpose than those defined in the Convention is not sufficient to prove that Article 18 was breached.
256. When an allegation under Article 18 is made the Court applies a very exacting standard of proof; as a consequence, there are only few cases where the breach of that Convention provision has been found. Thus, in Gusinskiy v. Russia (no. 70276/01, § 73–78, ECHR 2004-… (extracts), the Court accepted that the applicant’s liberty was restricted, inter alia, for a purpose other than those mentioned in Article 5. The Court in that case based its findings on an agreement signed between the detainee and a federal minister of the press. It was clear from that agreement that the applicant’s detention was applied in order to make him sell his media company to the State. In Cebotari v Moldova (no. 35615/06, §§ 46 et seq., 13 November 2007) the Court found a violation of Article 18 of the Convention in a context where the applicant’s arrest was visibly linked to an application pending before the Court. However, such cases remain rare (see, as an opposite example, Sisojeva and Others v. Latvia [GC], no. 60654/00, § 129, ECHR 2007-II). Particularly, the Court notes that there is nothing in the Court’s case-law to support the applicant’s suggestion that, where a prima facie case of improper motive is established, the burden of proof shifts to the respondent Government. The Court considers that the burden of proof in such a context should rest with the applicant.
257. In the case at hand the applicant referred to various sources which confirm his allegations of “improper motive”. First, he invited the Court to consider the facts surrounding his business and political activities, as well as the major policy lines adopted by the President’s administration at the relevant time. Indeed, those facts cannot be ignored. In particular, the Court acknowledges that the applicant had political ambitions which admittedly went counter to the mainstream line of the administration, that the applicant, as a rich and influential man, could become a serious political player and was already supporting opposition parties, and that it was a State-owned company which benefited most from the dismantlement of the applicant’s industrial empire.
258. On the other hand, any person in the applicant’s position would be able to make similar allegations. In reality, it would have been impossible to prosecute a suspect with the applicant’s profile without far-reaching political consequences. The fact that the suspect’s political opponents or business competitors might directly or indirectly benefit from him being put in jail should not prevent the authorities from prosecuting such a person if there are serious charges against him. In other words, high political status does not grant immunity. The Court is persuaded that the charges against the applicant amounted to a “reasonable suspicion” within the meaning of Article 5 § 1 (c) of the Convention.
259. Nevertheless, the combination of the factors mentioned above have caused many people to believe that the applicant’s prosecution was driven by the desire to remove him from the political scene and, at the same time, to appropriate his wealth. The applicant strongly relies on those opinions; in particular, he relies on resolutions of political institutions, NGOs, statements of various public figures, etc. The Court took note of those opinions. However, it must recall that political process and adjudicative process are fundamentally different. It is often much easier for a politician to take a stand than for a judge, since the judge must base his decision only on evidence in the legal sense.
260. Finally, the Court turns to the findings of several European courts in the proceedings involving former Yukos managers and Yukos assets. Those findings are probably the strongest argument in favour of the applicant’s complaint under Article 18 of the Convention. However, the evidence and legal arguments before those courts might have been different from those in the case under examination. More importantly, assuming, that all courts had the same evidence and arguments before them, the Court reiterates that its own standard of proof applied in Article 18 cases is very high and may be different from those applied domestically. The Court admits that the applicant’s case may raise a certain suspicion as to the real intent of the authorities, and that this state of suspicion might be sufficient for the domestic courts to refuse extradition, deny legal assistance, issue injunctions against the Russian Government, make pecuniary awards, etc. However, it is not sufficient for this Court to conclude that the whole legal machinery of the respondent State in the present case was ab intio misused, that from the beginning to the end the authorities were acting with bad faith and in blatant disregard of the Convention. This is a very serious claim which requires an incontrovertible and direct proof. Such proof, in contrast to the Gusinskiy case, cited above, is absent from the case under examination.
261. In such circumstances the Court cannot find that Article 18 was breached in this case.
CASE OF OAO NEFTYANAYA KOMPANIYA YUKOS v. RUSSIA, 08/03/2012 [AK: As regards whether Yukos’ prosecution was lawful]
γ. The Court’s assessment
588. The Court notes that in this complaint the applicant company challenged the lawfulness of the Tax Assessments 2000-2003 only in the part linked to the payment of reassessed taxes. The examination will therefore be confined to the question of the lawfulness of the additional tax liability. The Court further notes that the company did not seem to dispute that the relevant laws made it clear what taxes were due, at what rate and when. Rather, the company claimed that in 2000, 2001, 2002 and 2003 it used lawful “tax optimisation techniques” which were only subsequently condemned by the domestic courts in 2004, 2005 and 2006. It also complained that any existing legal basis for finding the company liable fell short of the Convention requirements in respect of the quality of the law and that, in any event, the application of the relevant laws contradicted established practice. Accordingly, the Court has to determine whether the relevant tax arrangements were domestically lawful at the time when the relevant transactions took place and whether the legal basis for finding the applicant company liable was sufficiently accessible, precise and foreseeable.
589. Turning to the first question, the Court would note at the outset that the applicant company disputed the findings of the domestic courts concerning the nature of relations between the applicant company and its trading entities. In view of its conclusion that the tax assessment proceedings in respect of the year 2000 did not comply with the requirements of Article 6 §§ 1 and 3 (b) of the Convention, the Court is required to decide whether the factual assessments made by the domestic courts could be used for the purposes of its legal analysis under Article 1 of Protocol No. 1. In this respect, the Court reiterates that according to its well-established case-law it is not its task to take the place of the domestic courts, which are in the best position to assess the evidence before them and establish the facts. The Court will not, in principle, intervene, unless the decisions reached by the domestic courts appear arbitrary or manifestly unreasonable (see, mutatis mutandis, Ravnsborg v. Sweden, 23 March 1994, § 33, Series A no. 283-B; Bulut v. Austria, 22 February 1996, § 29, Reports of Judgments and Decisions 1996-II, and Tejedor García v. Spain, 16 December 1997, § 31, Reports 1997-VIII) or if the court decisions have been issued in “flagrant denial of justice” (compare Stoichkov v. Bulgaria, no. 9808/02, § 54, 24 March 2005).
590. Having examined the materials of the case and the parties’ submissions and despite its earlier conclusions under Article 6 §§ 1 and 3 (b) of the Convention in respect of the 2000 Tax Assessment (see paragraph 551), the Court has little doubt that the factual conclusions of the domestic courts in the Tax Assessment proceedings 2000-2003 were sound. The factual issues in all of these proceedings were substantially similar and the relevant case files contained abundant witness statements and documentary evidence to support the connections between the applicant company and its trading companies and to prove the sham nature of the latter entities (see paragraphs 14-18, 48, 62-63, 165, 191-193, 212 and 213). The applicant company itself did not give any plausible alternative interpretation of this rather unambiguous evidence, as examined and accepted by the domestic courts.
591. From the findings of the domestic courts and the parties’ explanations, the Court notes that the company’s “tax optimisation techniques” applied with slight variations throughout 2000-2003 consisted of switching the tax burden from the applicant company and its production and service units to letter-box companies in domestic tax havens in Russia. These companies, with no assets, employees or operations of their own, were nominally owned and managed by third parties, although in reality they were set up and run by the applicant company itself. In essence, the applicant company’s oil-producing subsidiaries sold the extracted oil to the letter-box companies at a fraction of the market price. [AK: Here one is tempted to recall Khodorkovsky’s open statement on Russian TV, “I’m uninterested in the cosmetic tricks of the judicial bureaucrats. The statement that oil in Siberia has to be sold at Rotterdam prices is too bizarre to comment on.”] The letter-box companies, acting in cascade, then sold the oil either abroad, this time at market price or to the applicant company’s refineries and subsequently re-bought it at a reduced price and re-sold it at the market price. Thus, the letter-box companies accumulated most of the applicant company’s profits. Since they were registered in domestic low-tax areas, they enabled the applicant company to pay substantially lower taxes in respect of these profits. Subsequently, the letter-box companies transferred the accumulated profits unilaterally to the applicant company as gifts. The Court observes that substantial tax reductions were only possible through the mixed use and simultaneous application of at least two different techniques. The applicant company used the method of transfer pricing, which consisted of selling the goods from its production division to its marketing companies at intentionally lowered prices and the use of sham entities registered in the domestic regions with low taxation levels and nominally owned and run by third persons (see paragraphs 14-18, 48, 62-63 for a more detailed description).
592. The domestic courts found that such an arrangement was at face value clearly unlawful domestically, as it involved the fraudulent registration of trading entities by the applicant company in the name of third persons and its corresponding failure to declare to the tax authorities its true relation to these companies (see paragraphs 311, 349-353, 374-380). This being so, the Court cannot accept the applicant company’s argument that the letter-box entities had been entitled to the tax exemptions in questions. For the same reason, the Court dismisses the applicant company’s argument that all the constituent members of the Yukos group had made regular tax declarations and had applied regularly for tax refunds and that the authorities were thus aware of the functioning of the arrangement. The tax authorities may have had access to scattered pieces of information about the functioning of separate parts of the arrangement, located across the country, but, given the scale and fraudulent character of the arrangement, they certainly could not have been aware of the arrangement in its entirety on the sole basis on the tax declarations and requests for tax refunds made by the trading companies, the applicant company and its subsidiaries.
593. The arrangement was obviously aimed at evading the general requirements of the Tax Code, which expected taxpayers to trade at market prices (see paragraphs 395-399), and by its nature involved certain operations, such as unilateral gifts between the trading companies and the applicant company through its subsidiaries, which were incompatible with the rules governing the relations between independent legal entities (see paragraph 376). In this connection, the Court finds relevant the warning given by the company’s auditor about the implications of the use of the company’s special fund during the year 2002 (see paragraphs 206-209) and is not persuaded by the applicant company’s reference to case no. A42-6604/00-15-818/01 (see paragraphs 356-357), the expert opinion of its counsel (see paragraph 577) and its reliance on Article 251 (1) 11 of the Tax Code (see paragraph 376).
594. By contrast to the Tax Assessments in issue, the respondent entity in case no. A42-6604/00-15-818/01 was not alleged to have been part of a larger tax fraud and the Ministry failed to prove that it had been sham. The courts established that the entity had some assets, employees and a bank account at the place of its registration and dismissed the Ministry’s claims. As regards the expert opinion and the company’s reference to Article 251 (1) 11 of the Tax Code, the Court finds them irrelevant as they refer to the relations of openly associated companies and not, as was the case at issue, to the use of sham entities fraudulently registered in the name of certain third parties. Thus, the Court cannot agree with the applicant company’s allegation that its particular way of “optimising tax” had been previously examined by the domestic courts and upheld as valid or that it had used lawful “tax optimisation techniques” which were only subsequently condemned by the domestic courts. The above considerations are sufficient for the Court to conclude that the findings of the domestic courts that applicant company’s tax arrangements were unlawful at the time when the company had used them, were neither arbitrary nor manifestly unreasonable.
595. The Court will now turn to the question whether the legal basis for finding the applicant company liable was sufficiently accessible, precise and foreseeable. In this connection, the Court notes that in all the Tax Assessments (see paragraphs 14-18, 48, 62-63, 165, 191-193, 212 and 213) the domestic courts essentially reasoned as follows. The courts established that the trading companies had been sham and had been entirely controlled by the applicant company and accordingly reclassified the transactions conducted by the sham entities as transactions conducted in reality by the applicant company.
596. The courts first decided that the transactions of the sham entities failed to meet the requirements of Article 39 of the Tax Code defining the notion of a sales operation (see paragraphs 48 and 324) as well as Article 209 of the Civil Code describing essential characteristics of an owner of goods (see paragraph 48 and 381). In view of the above and relying on Article 10 (3) of the Civil Code which established a refutable presumption of good faith and reasonableness of actions of the parties in commercial transactions (see paragraph 48 and 382-383), the courts then changed the characterisation of the sales operations of the sham entities. They decided that these were in reality conducted by the applicant company and that it had been incumbent on the latter to fulfil the corresponding obligation to pay various taxes on these activities. Finally, the courts noted that the setting up and running of the sham arrangement by the applicant company resulted in an understating of the taxable base of its operations and, as a consequence, the intentional non-payment of various taxes, which was punishable as a tax offence under Article 122 of the Tax Code (see paragraph 400).
597. Having regard to the applicable domestic law, the Court finds that, contrary to the applicant company’s assertions, it is clear that under the then rules contractual arrangements made by the parties in commercial transactions were only valid in so far as the parties were acting in good faith and that the tax authorities had broad powers in verifying the character of the parties’ conduct and contesting the legal characterisation of such arrangements before the courts. This was made clear not only by Article 10 (3) of the Civil Code relied on by the domestic courts in the Tax Assessment proceedings, but also by other relevant and applicable statutory provisions which were available to the applicant company and other taxpayers at the time. Thus, Article 45 (2) 3 of the Tax Code explicitly provided the domestic courts with the power to change the legal characterisation of transactions and also the legal characterisation of the status and activity of the taxpayer, whilst section 7 of the Law on the Tax Authorities of the Russian Federation granted the right to contest such transactions to the tax authorities (see paragraph 393). In addition, the case-law referred to by the Government indicated that the power to re-characterise or to cancel bad faith activities of companies existed and had been used by the domestic courts in diverse contexts and with varying consequences for the parties concerned since as early as 1997 (see paragraphs 382-393 and paragraphs 428-468). Moreover, in a number of its rulings, including decision of 25 July 2001 no. 138-0 specifically relied upon by the domestic courts in the Tax Assessment proceedings against the applicant company (see paragraphs 384-387), the Constitutional Court confirmed the significance of this principle, having mentioned various possible consequences of a taxpayer’s bad faith conduct.
598. In so far as the applicant company complained that the bad faith doctrine had been too vague, the Court would again reiterate that in any system of law, including criminal law, there is an inevitable element of judicial interpretation and there will always be a need for elucidation of doubtful points and for adaptation to changing circumstances. In order to avoid excessive rigidity, many laws are inevitably couched in terms which, to a greater or lesser extent, are vague and whose interpretation and application are questions of practice (see, among other authorities, Sunday Times, cited above, § 49 and Kokkinakis, cited above, § 40). On the facts, it would be impossible to expect from a statutory provision to describe in detail all possible ways in which a given taxpayer could abuse a legal system and defraud the tax authorities. At the same time, the applicable legal norms made it quite clear that, if uncovered, a taxpayer faced the risk of tax reassessment of its actual economic activity in the light of the relevant findings of the competent authorities. And this is precisely what happened to the applicant company in the case at hand.
599. Overall, having regard to the margin of appreciation enjoyed by the State in this sphere and the fact that the applicant company was a large business holding which at the relevant time could have been expected to have recourse to professional auditors and consultants (see Špaček, s.r.o., cited above, § 59), the Court finds that there existed a sufficiently clear legal basis for finding the applicant company liable in the Tax Assessments 2000-2003.
600. Lastly, the Court observes that the applicant company made a number of additional arguments under this head. In particular, it also alleged that there was no basis in law to deny the repayment of VAT in respect of the export of oil and oil products, that the domestic courts had failed to apply Articles 20 and 40 of the Tax Code, that it should have been dispensed from payment of interest surcharges under Article 75 (3) of the Tax Code and that in respect of the year 2000 the company had been subjected to double taxation in respect of the profits of the sham entities.
601. The Court notes that both Section 5 of Law no. 1992-1 of 6 December 1991 “On Value-Added Tax” governing the relevant sphere until 1 January 2001 as well as Article 165 of the Tax Code applicable to the subsequent period provided unequivocally that a zero rate of value-added tax in respect of exported goods and its refund could by no means be applied automatically, and that the company was required to claim the tax exemptions or refunds under its own name under the procedure set out initially in Letter no. B3-8-05/848, 04-03-08 of the State Tax Service of Russia and the Ministry of Finance and subsequently in Article 176 of the Tax Code to substantiate the requests in order to obtain the impugned refunds (see paragraphs 326-336). In view of the above, the Court finds that the relevant rules made the procedure for VAT refunds sufficiently clear and accessible for the applicant company to able to comply with it.
602. Having examined the case file materials and the parties’ submissions, including the company’s allegation made at the hearing on 4 March 2010 that it had filed the VAT exemption forms for each of the years 2000 to 2003 on 31 August 2004, the Court finds that the applicant company failed to submit any proof that it had made a properly substantiated filing in accordance with the established procedure, and not simply raised it as one of the arguments in the Tax Assessment proceedings, and that it had then contested any refusal by the tax authorities before the competent domestic courts (see paragraphs 49 and 171, 196, 196 and 216). The Court concludes that the applicant company did not receive any adverse treatment in this respect.
603. As regards the company’s argument that Articles 20 and 40 of the Tax Code should have been applied by the domestic courts in their case and that the Ministry’s claims were inconsistent with the above provisions, the Court notes that the Ministry and the domestic courts never relied on these provisions and there is nothing in the applicable domestic law to suggest that they had been under a legal obligation to apply these provisions to the applicant company’s case. Thus, it cannot be said that the authorities’ failure to rely on these provisions rendered the Tax Assessments 2000-2001 unlawful.
604. Finally and in so far as the company disagreed with the interpretation of Article 75 (3) of the Tax Code by the domestic courts and also alleged to have been subjected to double taxation, the Court would again reiterate that it is not its task to take the place of the domestic courts, which are in the best position to assess the evidence before them, establish the facts and to interpret the domestic law. On the facts, the former provision only applied to cases where the taxpayer was unable to pay the tax debt solely due to the seizure of its assets and cash funds (see paragraph 402). The domestic courts established that the company had been unable to pay because of the lack of funds and not because of the injunctions and refused to apply Article 75 (3) of the Tax Code in the applicant’s case (see paragraph 216). The Court does not find this conclusion arbitrary or unreasonable. Likewise, the Court finds nothing in the parties’ submissions or the case file materials to cast doubt on the findings of the domestic courts, which specifically established that the Ministry took account of the sham entities’ profits in calculating their claims so as to avoid double taxation (see paragraph 49).
605. Overall, the Court finds that, in so far as the applicant company’s argument about the allegedly unreasonable and unforeseeable interpretation of the domestic law in the Tax Assessments 2000-2003 is concerned, the Tax Assessments 2000-2003 complied with the requirement of lawfulness of Article 1 of Protocol No. 1.
(b) Whether the Tax Assessments 2000-2003 pursued a legitimate aim and were proportionate
606. The Court is satisfied that, subject to its findings in respect of the lawfulness of fines for the years 2000 and 2001 made earlier, each of the Tax Assessments 2000-2003 pursued a legitimate aim of securing the payment of taxes and constituted a proportionate measure in pursuance of this aim. The tax rates as such were not particularly high and given the gravity of the applicant company’s actions there is nothing in the case file to suggest that the rates of the fines or interest payments can be viewed as having imposed an individual and disproportionate burden, as such, on the applicant company (see Dukmedjian v. France, no. 60495/00, §§ 55-59, 31 January 2006).
(c) Conclusion concerning the compliance with Article 1 of Protocol No. 1 as regards the Tax Assessments 2000-2003
607. Overall, the Court finds that there has been a violation of Article 1 of Protocol No. 1 on account of the 2000-2001 Tax Assessments in the part relating to the imposition and calculation of penalties. Furthermore, the Court finds that there has been no violation of Article 1 of Protocol No. 1 as regards the rest of the 2000-2003 Tax Assessments.
2. Compliance with Article 14, taken in conjunction with Article 1 of Protocol No. 1
(a) The applicant company’s submissions
608. The applicant company argued that the courts’ interpretation of the relevant laws had been selective and unique, since many other Russian companies such as Sibneft and TNK International Ltd. had also used domestic tax havens.
609. The company also submitted that the authorities had tolerated and even endorsed the tax optimisation techniques used by the applicant company in that they had accepted the applicant company’s and its trading companies’ tax returns and payments on a regular basis, and the company’s rate of tax payment had been comparable to or even higher than that of its competitors. In this connection, the applicant company relied on statistical data contained in a report by the Centre for Development, a report of the Financial Research Institute and reports of the Accounts Chamber of Russia. The company also under this heading argued that the legislative framework had permitted the company to use such techniques and that the interpretation of the domestic law in its case had been unique, selective and unforeseeable.
(b) The Government’s submissions
610. The Government responded that the allegations that other taxpayers may have used similar schemes could not be interpreted as justifying the applicant company’s failure to abide by the law. They further contended that the occurrence of illegal tax schemes at a certain stage of Russia’s historical development was not due to failures or drawbacks in the legislation, but rather due to “bad-faith” actions by economic actors and weakened governmental control over compliance with the Russian tax legislation on account of objective criteria, such as the 1998 economic crisis and the difficulties of the transition period.
611. At present, the Government was constantly combating tax evasion and strengthening its control in this sphere. They also referred to statistical data by AK&M and some other news agencies in 2002, which had reported that OAO LUKOIL and OAO Surgutneftegas, two other large Russian oil producers, had posted sales proceeds of RUB 434.92 billion and RUB 163.652 billion and paid RUB 21.190 billion and RUB 13.885 billion in profit tax respectively, whilst the applicant company had posted sales proceeds of RUB 295.729 billion and paid only RUB 3.193 billion in profit tax. The Government submitted that at least two Russian oil majors, OAO Surgutneftegaz and OAO Rosneft, had never engaged in such practices, whilst some, in particular OAO Lukoil, had ceased using them in 2002.
(c) The Court’s assessment
612. The Court will examine this grievance under Article 14 of the Convention, taken in conjunction with Article 1 of Protocol No. 1. This former provision reads:
Article 14 of the Convention
“The enjoyment of the rights and freedoms set forth in [the] Convention shall be secured without discrimination on any ground such as sex, race, colour, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, association with a national minority, property, birth or other status.”
613. Before considering the complaints made by the applicant company, the Court would reiterate that Article 14 does not forbid every difference in treatment in the exercise of the rights and freedoms recognised by the Convention (see, for example, Lithgow and Others, cited above, § 117). It safeguards persons (including legal persons) who are “placed in analogous situations” against discriminatory differences of treatment; and, for the purposes of Article 14, a difference of treatment is discriminatory if it “has no objective and reasonable justification”, that is, if it does not pursue a “legitimate aim” or if there is not a “reasonable relationship of proportionality between the means employed and the aim sought to be realised” (see, amongst many authorities, Rasmussen v. Denmark, 28 November 1984, §§ 35 and 38, Series A no. 87). Furthermore, the Contracting States enjoy a certain margin of appreciation in assessing whether and to what extent differences in otherwise similar situations justify a different treatment in law; the scope of this margin will vary according to the circumstances, the subject-matter and its background (ibid., § 40).
614. The Court would reiterate that nothing in the case file suggests that the applicant company’s tax arrangements during the years 2000-2003, taken in their entirety, including the use of fraudulently registered trading companies, were known to the tax authorities or the domestic courts and that they had previously upheld them as lawful (see paragraphs 592-594). It thus cannot be said that the authorities passively tolerated or actively endorsed them.
615. As regards the applicant company’s allegation that other domestic taxpayers used or continue to use exactly the same or similar tax arrangements as the applicant company and that the applicant company was the only one to have been singled out, the Court finds that the applicant company failed to demonstrate that any other companies were in a relevantly similar position. The Court notes that the applicant company was found to have employed a tax arrangement of considerable complexity, involving, among other things, the fraudulent use of trading companies registered in domestic tax havens. This was not simply the use of domestic tax havens, which, depending on the exact details of an arrangement, may have been legal or may have had some other legal consequences for the companies allegedly using them. The Court notes that the applicant company had failed to submit any specific and reliable evidence concerning such details. It further notes that it cannot be called upon to speculate on the merits of the tax arrangements of third parties on the basis of data contained in non-binding research and information reports and that therefore it cannot be said that the situation of these third parties was relevantly similar to the situation of the applicant company in this respect.
616. The Court concludes that, in so far as the complaint about discriminatory treatment is concerned, there has been no violation of Article 14 of the Convention, taken in conjunction with Article 1 of Protocol No. 1.