Russia awaits Khodorkovsky verdict under Putin's icy gaze

24th December 2010, Comments 0 comments

A Moscow court is expected Monday to begin announcing the verdict in the second trial of former oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, a case some see as a bellwether of Russia's political future.

Once the country's richest man, now its most prominent prisoner, Khodorkovsky, 47, is already serving an eight-year sentence for fraud.

This time he is on trial on charges of money laundering and embezzlement that could see the head of the now-defunct Yukos oil giant receive another 14-year jail term.

The pursuit of Khodorkovsky has been the most controversial legal action of the post-Soviet era.

Khodorkovsky's supporters see him as a martyr punished for daring to challenge strongman Vladimir Putin, but for Russian officials he is just a corrupt tycoon who broke the law.

The verdict will be watched as a possible indicator of Russia's future direction under premier Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev, amid speculation that Putin is planning a return to the Kremlin in 2012 polls.

"Khodorkovsky's case is a symbol of Putin's regime, it traces the trajectory of Russia's direction," said Lilia Shevtsova, an analyst with the Moscow Carnegie Centre.

"Khodorkovsky has ceased to be merely a man of a tragic fate and become a symbol, a challenge to the regime, its antithesis."

"For Putin to release Khodorkovsky would mean to lose his face, to lose control over the situation," she told AFP.

Moscow's Khamovnichesky court had been due to start reading the verdict on Khodorkovsky and his co-accused Platon Lebedev, 54, on December 15, but unexpectedly postponed the announcement without giving an explanation.

The next day Putin said Khodorkovsky deserved to be in prison, in comments decried by the fallen magnate's legal team as direct interference and sparking fears that he now had little chance of being acquitted.

"I believe that a thief must be in prison," Putin said during a live question-and-answer session, quoting a line from one of the country's favourite Soviet-era movies.

Aides later insisted Putin was only referring to the first trial.

Putin -- who has compared Khodorkovsky to gangster Al Capone and jailed US fraudster Bernard Madoff -- also accused him of being behind contract killings, accusations, that have never been brought to court.

"By making announcements that Khodorkovsky's guilt has been proven Putin removed all doubt -- if anyone really had it -- about who puts pressure on the court and how this is done," defence lawyer Vadim Klyuvgant told AFP.

Khodorkovsky is accused of stealing 218 million metric tons of oil worth more than 26 billion dollars from his own Yukos company between 1998 and 2003 -- a charge the defence team says is absurd.

Like many other billionaires, Khodorkovsky made his fortune in controversial loans-for-shares privatization in the 1990s. But he quickly built his Yukos oil company into the first Russian major that adopted international accounting standards.

But while other tycoons chose to toe the Kremlin line, Khodorkovsky openly defied Russia's top boss, financing the political opposition.

When storm clouds began gathering, he refused to leave the country and found himself arrested on the tarmac in Siberia in 2003.

Khodorkovsky said recently he was willing to spend the rest of his life in prison for his convictions.

"I am not exaggerating if I say that millions of eyes in the entire country and the world are following this trial," Khodorkovsky said last month in a dramatic final address to the court before it adjourned for the verdict.

His supporters hoped for a change in course when Medvedev, who promised to end legal nihilism in Russia, came to power in 2008.

So far however he has merely indicated the judicial path must take its course. That has only strengthened speculation that Medvedev is acting merely as a seat warmer for Putin and will step aside in 2012 to allow the Russian strongman to return to the Kremlin.

© 2010 AFP

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