Russia unexpectedly postpones tycoon's verdict

15th December 2010, Comments 0 comments

A court Wednesday postponed the verdict in the second trial of Mikhail Khodorkovsky for almost two weeks, in an unexpected twist to the long legal saga against the former richest man in Russia.

A simple sheet of paper pinned to the court door announced the postponement until December 27 of a verdict seen as indicating Russia's future orientation ahead of 2012 elections that may be a crossroads for the country.

Supporters of the former Yukos oil giant chief, who say he is being punished for daring to finance the opposition during the presidency of Vladimir Putin, warned the delay spelled bad news for the fallen tycoon.

Khodorkovsky, already serving an eight-year sentence for tax evasion, is on trial on new charges of money laundering and embezzlement that could see him and co-accused Platon Lebedev stay in jail until 2017.

"The reading of the verdict in the criminal case against Khodorkovsky and Lebedev will begin at 10:00 am (0700 GMT) on December 27," said the court notice.

Judge Viktor Danilkin was due to begin reading out the verdict on Wednesday, in a process expected to take days or even weeks. A spokeswoman told hundreds of supporters and media outside the court that no reason would be given.

The delay gives the judge just five days to finish reading the verdict before Russia shuts down for its long New Year holidays until January 10, meaning the final decision may only be revealed late next month.

"I fear that there is some kind of mysterious intent behind this," human rights activist Lyudmila Alexeyeva told AFP.

"It's been common practice since Soviet times to delay things until the very end of the year so people pay less attention."

"I did not expect this," said Khodorkovsky's father Boris outside the courthouse. "It seems they want it to come over the holiday period when people have other worries."

Danilkin entered without comment in the early morning, leaving the defence struggling to explain the decision and saying the only formal reason could be that the judge had failed to write down the verdict in time.

But the surprise postponement also came a day ahead of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's marathon annual question-and-answer session with Russian citizens where he would be expected to comment on the trial.

"If it has been clear from the start of the verdict that it would be a conviction, Putin would not have wanted to answer questions on this," said Konstantin Rivkin, a lawyer for Lebedev.

Putin however has shown not the slightest sign of mercy for Khodorkovsky, even accusing him of ordering contract killings, allegations that have never even been raised in court, and saying "his hands are stained in blood."

The postponement also came after leading Russian journalist Leonid Parfyonov, a hugely popular figure in Russia, called in a YouTube video for a mass rally outside the courtroom on Wednesday.

"You do not need to be a supporter of Khodorkovsky and Lebedev to understand that this case is historic and will determine a lot, if not everything, in the social-political situation in the country," he said.

It remains unclear whether Putin or his Kremlin successor Dmitry Medvedev will run in 2012 presidential polls, with Russian reformists hoping Medvedev will stand again to press on with a process of modernisation.

Khodorkovsky was arrested in 2003 in a dawn swoop by security forces on his private jet on the tarmac of a Siberian airport and received his original jail sentence in 2005.

Khodorkovsky and Lebedev are accused of embezzling 218 million tonnes of oil worth more than 26 billion dollars -- an amount the defence says is absurd as it is equivalent to Yukos' total oil production from 1998 to 2003.

"Everyone understands that your verdict -- whatever it is -- will form a part of Russian history," Khodorkovsky told Danilkin last month in a dramatic final address to the court before it adjourned for the verdict.

© 2010 AFP

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