Russia's Khodorkovsky says 'doesn't want to die in prison'

2nd November 2010, Comments 0 comments

Jailed Russian oil magnate Mikhail Khodorkovsky told a court Tuesday he did not want to die in prison, but nor did he believe he would be acquitted as his trial for fraud and embezzlement drew to a close.

"While there is always hope, no one believes we will be acquitted," he said in the final submission at his trial in Moscow's Khamovnichesky district court.

Khodorkovsky called the trial a test of the rule of law in Russia, even though his supporters have denounced the charges brought by the prosecution as a politically motivated farce.

"Millions of people are watching this case hoping that the rule of law will triumph in the country. I don't want to die in prison, but my belief is worth my life," he said.

The former Yukos boss was speaking after judge Viktor Danilkin announced that he would begin pronouncing his verdict on December 15. It is expected that it will take several days to pronounce the full verdict.

Khodorkovsky, who is already serving an eight-year sentence for fraud, has asked the Moscow court to acquit him on all the fresh charges, which he has described as absurd.

The 47-year-old was Russia's richest man before his initial arrest in 2003, with his oil empire estimated to have been worth around 15 billion dollars.

Dressed in a dark shirt and jacket, Khodorkovsky ended an eloquent speech with the line: "The fate of each and every Russian citizen is being decided here and now."

As he finished speaking, a round of applause broke out among members of the public in the courtroom, including his elderly parents and former prime minister Mikhail Kasyanov, who spoke as a defence witness earlier this year.

After the judge named the date of the verdict, members of the public shouted, "Freedom! Freedom!"

His father, Boris Khodorkovsky, praised his son's courage after the speech.

"He thought in his last speech about all of us. He is no longer thinking about his own fate," he told AFP.

Khodorkovsky's lawyer, Vadim Klyuvgant, told journalists that a guilty verdict would show "total disrespect for the law."

"The only legal decision is acquittal on all charges," he said.

Prosecutors have asked for a sentence of 14 years for Khodorkovsky and his business partner Platon Lebedev on charges of stealing millions of tons of oil.

On Monday, prosecutor Valery Lakhtin sharply accused the defence team of telling lies and manipulating public opinion to create the impression that the trial was politically motivated.

However, his mother, Marina Khodorkovskaya, told AFP after the speech that she was sure the verdict would be decided by Russia's strongman prime minister, Vladimir Putin.

"There is almost no hope because it is not the court that decides and I do not know what is going on in Vladimir Putin's head," she told AFP.

The reading of the verdict and sentence may take days or even weeks in a lengthy process in which the judge may read out all the accusations against the men.

Khodorkovsky was jailed for eight years in 2005 on fraud and tax evasion charges that his supporters argue were trumped up to punish the tycoon for daring to finance opposition parties.

He and Lebedev went on trial on the new charges in March 2009.

At the time of his arrest, Khodorkovsky was seen as a political rival to Putin, who was then Russia's president, funding rival political parties.

Putin, who is now prime minister, last year compared the tycoon to gangster Al Capone.

Putin's government insists that Khodorkovsky is guilty of massive financial crimes stemming from the controversial privatisations of the 1990s.

© 2010 AFP

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