Supporters of jailed Russian tycoon rally ahead of verdict

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About 1,000 people protested in Moscow on Sunday in support of jailed oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky ahead of a new court verdict due next, with a smaller rally staged in Saint Petersburg.

Khodorkovsky and his partner Platon Lebedev, who are already serving an eight-year sentence for fraud, await a verdict in a second trial on charges of stealing millions of tons of oil.

The Moscow court is to start reading the verdict on Wednesday.

Supporters and activists gathered in Pushkin Square in central Moscow to rally for the tycoon's release and the resignation of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.

Protestors handed out postcards addressed to President Dmitry Medvedev urging him to intervene in the trial.

Khodorkovsky's prosecution is seen by his supporters as politically motivated and masterminded by Putin, who was president when Khodorkovsky was first jailed in 2003, as a response for the tycoon financing opposition parties.

"He has not committed a crime. They (the authorities) have invented accusations and they don't know how to get out of this," said Elena Miloslavova, a pensioner who was handing out postcards.

"Our country only has one chance for survival: get rid of Putin and his gang," said Garry Kasparov, the former chess world champion who is a fierce critic of Putin.

Meanwhile, about 300 people gathered for a similar protest in Saint Petersburg.

"We believe that the sentence on Khodorkovsky will be the sentence on the future. Whatever it is, it will shape our tomorrow," said Olga Kurnosova of the oppositional movement United Civic Front at the rally in Russia's second city.

Khodorkovsky and Lebedev are due to finish their initial prison terms next year, but could be facing up to 14 more years behind bars after next week's verdict.

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.

© 2010 AFP

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