Khodorkovsky verdict postponed: Russian court

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

The verdict in the trial of Khodorkovsky and his co-accused Platon Lebedev was eagerly awaited as giving a signal for Russia's future orientation ahead of 2012 presidential polls seen as a crossroads for the country.

Khodorkovsky's supporters have long contested that the former head of the now defunct Yukos oil giant is being punished for daring to finance opposition parties during the presidency of Vladimir Putin.

"The reading of the verdict in the criminal case against Khodorkovsky and Lebedev will begin at 10:00 am (0700 GMT) on December 27," Russian news agencies quoted a court notice as saying.

Judge Viktor Danilkin had been due to begin reading out the verdict on Wednesday, in a process expected to take several days or even weeks.

Khodorkovsky, already serving an eight-year sentence for tax evasion, is on trial on new charges of money laundering and embezzlement that could see the head of the now defunct Yukos oil giant receive another heavy jail term.

A notice announcing the postponement of the trial was hung on the door of the court. Danilkin entered without comment in the early morning, leaving the defence struggling to explain the decision.

"Formally this could be linked to the fact that the judge has not yet managed to write down the judgement," Elena Liptser, the lawyer for Lebedev, told the Interfax news agency.

"Beyond that, I do not know," she added. A court spokeswoman said the reason for the postponement would not be revealed.

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.

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."

In rare remarks on the case by a top Kremlin official, Medvedev's top economic advisor Arkady Dvorkovich told the BBC in comments released Tuesday that he believed "that a fair decision will be taken" in the second trial.

France's former foreign minister Bernard Kouchner, British ex-foreign minister David Miliband and European and US lawmakers Tuesday said the consensus was that "their ongoing persecution is unjust and not truly motivated by law.

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 the 2012 presidential polls, with Russian reformists hoping Medvedev will stand again to press on with a process of modernisation.

Prosecutors have asked for a new 14-year sentence to run simultaneously with the current eight-year jail term so that Khodorkovsky and Lebedev, if convicted, would remain behind bars until 2017.

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

"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.

"Everyone understands that your verdict -- whatever it is -- will form a part of Russian history," he told Danilkin.

© 2010 AFP

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