Mumbling judge plods through Khodorkovsky marathon

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The judge mumbled his way through a verdict hundreds of pages long, security guards picked their noses and Russia's most famous prisoner absent-mindedly fiddled with his papers.

The guilty verdict for Mikhail Khodorkovsky may risk a diplomatic row with the West and dash hopes of liberal reform but the Moscow courtroom that is the epicentre of the case Tuesday was hardly a hive of frenetic activity.

Judge Viktor Danilkin surprised observers a day earlier by saying that Khodorkovsky and his co-accused Platon Lebedev had been found guilty, before he had started reading out the details on the verdict.

But on Tuesday, Danilkin was ploughing his way through the technical nitty-gritty of the judgement, a document hundreds of pages long, each one of which he must read before pronouncing his sentence.

In Russia, it is customary for the reading of verdicts in cases, especially complex financial actions, to last for days and even weeks on end.

According to the defence, the verdict is 800 pages long, about the same volume as the epic novels by Dostoyevsky or Tolstoy for which Russia is famous but presumably less enthralling.

With the court estimating the judge has already read out some 150 pages, the conclusion of the trial seems set to last several more days, although defence lawyers said the sentence could still come by the end of the year.

Khodorkovsky, looking sharp in a black turtleneck, and Lebedev, in a white jacket, sat in an enclosed coutroom box fronted by bullet-proof glass, showing zero interest in what the judge was reading out.

Led in by armed guards, the two waved to journalists, mouthed "Happy New Year" and then settled down to hour after hour of inactivity.

Lebedev smiled at his wife, although after she left, apparently a victim of boredom, he jotted notes on paper or even read a book.

Barely audible and sometimes swallowing his words, Danilkin outlined the economic activities of Khodorkovsky's now defunct oil group Yukos, its contracts and shareholder actions.

Those present in the courtoom did what they could not to yawn.

A press room was set up so the media could hear the verdict with clear sound and in comfort -- but the relay was halted just before the judgement was due to be read out.

The Khamovnichesky district court close to the banks of the Moscow River seems an unlikely location for an event universally agreed to be of huge importance for Russia,

Danilkin's courtroom is little larger than the average school classroom, leaving little space for the media once the judge, prosecutors, lawyers and defendants have squeezed in.

Khodorkovsky and Lebedev appeared to have adopted an attitude of studied indifference for the verdict reading, neither showing emotion or even anger when the convictions were read out on Monday.

The court was shaken Monday by larger than expected protests by Khodorkovsky supporters outside in the street that often managed to drown out the low drone of Danilkin's voice in the courtoom.

But measures were taken Tuesday to ensure there was no repeat.

Metal barriers were installed 300 metres (328 yards) on the road either side of the courthouse and only people with official or press identification were being allowed through.

"Why is the road closed?" a young woman was heard asking her boyfriend. "They are judging Khodorkovsky there," he replied. "Is he a dangerous criminal?" she asked.

© 2010 AFP

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