Khodorkovsky awaits sentence as New Year's break looms

30th December 2010, Comments 0 comments

The sentencing of former oil tycoon and Kremlin critic Mikhail Khodorkovsky entered a fourth day Thursday amid expectations the trial of Russia's most famous inmate could be over before the New Year.

The jailed Yukos oil company founder and his co-defendant Platon Lebedev have already been convicted in their second trial on money laundering and embezzlement charges that were brought while the pair was already in jail.

But Russia's complex sentencing procedure requires the judge to read out the hundreds of pages in the full sentence before ruling whether to extend the pair's jail stay until 2017.

"The judge will finish by New Year's," the popular Moskovsky Komsomolets broadsheet -- one of the few papers still being published ahead of Russia's extended winter holiday break -- said in a headline.

Judge Viktor Danilkin appeared to be hurrying through the reading of the full verdict, keeping his eyes fixed on the document and not looking at the court, with his words frequently inaudible, an AFP correspondent in court said.

The two defendants appeared in good spirits but showed a complete lack of interest in proceedings with Lebedev filling in a word game and Khodorkovsky apparently autographing books he had been given by his lawyers.

Khodorkovsky has been in prison since being snatched off his private jet by Russian security agents in October 2003 just as his dispute with president turned Prime Minister Vladimir Putin was turning public.

The founder of Russia's largest -- and some said best managed -- oil company was later convicted on tax evasion and other charges and sentenced to serve time in a Siberian jail until 2011.

That conviction cooled the Russian investment climate and went a long way toward defining the series of conflicts that Putin engaged in with Western governments during his eight-year term as head of state.

Western governments, including the United States and Germany, have already accused the Russian government of practicing selective justice after Khodorkovsky's second conviction Monday.

The verdict had been largely expected even before Putin used a national television broadcast to affirm that a "thief must be in jail".

Putin's aides later explained that Russia's de-facto ruler was only referring to the first trial and had no personal views about the second case.

But the defence team and many observers interpreted the comments as a direct order for the court to convict Khodorkovsky again.

Some analysts suggest that it is the length of the sentence that will be used by the West as a measuring stick of Russia's commitment to court independence championed by Putin's presidential successor Dmitry Medvedev.

Putin's protege is a lawyer by training who has personally committed himself to Russia's modernisation and who this month chided government officials for making public comments about the trial.

But Putin is still seen as Russia's most influential political figure who may even return to the Kremlin following 2012 presidential elections in which he is allowed to run again.

© 2010 AFP

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