Russia awaits Khodorkovsky verdict under global scrutiny

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A court will Wednesday begin announcing the verdict in the second trial of Russia's ex-richest man Mikhail Khodorkovsky, a case watched globally as a critical moment in its post-Soviet history.

Khodorkovsky, already serving an eight-year sentence for fraud, 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 14-year jail term.

A stark crossroads awaits him and co-accused Platon Lebedev: a speedy release when the earlier sentence elapses, in the case of an acquittal; or spending the rest of their adult lives in jail if convicted.

In the most controversial legal action of post-Soviet Russia, Khodorkovsky is seen by supporters as a martyr punished for daring to defy Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and by officials as a corrupt tycoon who broke the law.

But one thing is certain. Despite the insistence of the authorities on independence of the judiciary, the verdict will be watched across the world as a signal of Russia's future orientation.

Accusations his jailing was a political stitch-up masterminded by top officials close to Putin have led Western capitals to view the new trial as a test for Russia's commitment to democracy under President Dmitry Medvedev.

US President Barack Obama has said it was "odd" that what appeared to be a re-hashing of old charges were resurfacing just as Khodorkovsky and Lebedev were eligible for parole.

"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 judge Viktor Danilkin, who may take several days to read out his judgement.

Khodorkovsky and Lebedev are accused of embezzling 218 million metric tons 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.

Witnesses called included former economy minister German Gref, now the head of Russia's largest bank, and Trade and Industry Minister Viktor Khristenko, whose appearances according to the defence exposed weakness in the charges.

"The Khodorkovsky trial plays a hugely important role for society and for business," said Lev Gudkov, director of the Levada polling centre in Moscow.

"The decision will not be taken in court but in the Kremlin administration. There are different points of view there and it is not clear who will win -- the technocrats or the security officials."

The portrayal of the case as a cause celebre for democracy by rights activists contrasts with the stance of the authorities, who insist Khodorkovsky is a suspect getting a fair trial who was justly convicted the first time.

Putin in September even accused Khodorkovsky of having ordered contract killings -- allegations that have never even been raised in court. His "hands are stained in blood", said the prime minister.

"He is serving a deserved punishment," Putin said in a separate interview in August, claiming he had been surprised to learn of the second trial. "I certainly did not push him into a corner."

For Khodorkosky's supporters, Putin and right-hand-man Igor Sechin are the dual nemeses of the fallen tycoon, ordering his 2003 arrest as revenge for financing opposition parties at a critical moment for the authorities.

They hoped for a change in course when Dmitry Medvedev, a trained lawyer who promised to end legal nihilism in Russia, came to power in 2008. So far however he has merely indicated the judicial path must take its course.

In his impassioned final address to the court, Khodorkovsky portrayed himself as a crusader for clean governance in Russia who has hoped that after the chaos of the 1990s "we could build a great country".

But while saying he did not want to die in jail, Russia's most famous prisoner also warned that an acquittal verdict on the Yukos affair was "impossible in a Moscow court".

According to prosecutor Valery Lakhtin, a new 14-year sentence would run concurrently with their current eight-year jail term so that Khodorkovsky and Lebedev, if convicted, would remain behind bars until 2017.

© 2010 AFP

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