December 15, 2010 9:31 am

Court verdict on Khodorkovsky delayed

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A Moscow court has delayed the start of the verdict in the politically charged case against Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the jailed Yukos oil tycoon, in a trial seen as a test of the Russian president’s pledge to boost the independence of the courts.

A notice announcing the delay in the start of the judge’s reading of the verdict until December 27 was posted before dawn on the court entrance, surprising defence lawyers and reporters who arrived in the bitter chill expecting to hear the decision.

No reason was given for the delay, but analysts and opposition politicians said it could have been aimed at minimising the fall-out from a likely guilty verdict. Many residents leave Moscow and no newspapers are printed during Russia’s two-week new year holiday.

The second trial against Mr Khodorkovsky, once Russia’s richest man, and his former business partner Platon Lebedev, is being closely watched as a test of whether Dmitry Medvedev, the Russian president, has the political will to allow an independent decision on a case at the heart of the system built by his predecessor Vladimir Putin, now prime minister.

Mr Khodorkovsky’s arrest at gunpoint in 2003 on charges of fraud and tax evasion marked a turning point in Mr Putin’s presidency that led to the stifling of political opposition and state dominance over the economy.

The second trial – on charges that Mr Khodorkovsky stole $27bn worth of oil from his own Yukos oil company and then laundered the proceeds – have been seen even by his critics as absurd. German Gref, former economy minister, had testified that he would have noticed a large-scale theft at what was then Russia’s number one oil producer.

An acquittal would signal that Mr Medvedev is breaking with Mr Putin who has shown no sign of softening his stance on the oil tycoon and who is seen as the more powerful of the two leaders.

Vadim Klyuvgant, Mr Khodorkovsky’s defence lawyer, said judge Viktor Danilkin was in a difficult position as he dealt with the case. “The judge was clearly not ready to deliver the verdict today. I don’t want to guess why … but it is clearly very difficult for him.”

Lawyers and analysts said the delay presented little chance of a reprieve for Mr Khodorkovsky.

Boris Nemtsov, an opposition politician, said the delay was an indication that the judge was preparing a “foul verdict” and that it was aimed at making sure “the thinking people in the country will not react strongly to the closing of this unprecedented trial while they are tied up in the new year rush”.

Sergei Markov, a leading member of the ruling United Russia party, said Mr Khodorkovsky’s own supporters had trapped him by suggesting that leniency would signal Mr Medvedev’s break with Mr Putin.

Mr Markov said the Kremlin would be the ultimate arbiter in the political dispute, adding that there was no way the authorities could allow independence of the court system when thousands of “proto-fascists” were attempting to riot across Moscow.

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