Moscow court

Court delays Khodorkovsky verdict

A Moscow court abruptly postponed the verdict in the trial of jailed tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky on Wednesday, surprising his lawyers and deepening the intrigue over a case that is testing the Kremlin's will to reform Russia.

A brief note posted on the courthouse door before sunrise said the judge would begin reading the verdict on Dec. 27. That could delay the denouement of Russia's biggest trial in years until January.

The court could add up to six years to the current prison term served by Khodorkovsky, former chief of the now-defunct Yukos oil company who ran afoul of Vladimir Putin's Kremlin.

An additional sentence would be on top of the eight years that Khodorkovsky is serving for fraud and tax evasion after a politically charged first trial. That prison term ends in October 2011.

With the second trial of Khodorkovsky and business partner Platon Lebedev adjourned last month, Judge Viktor Danilkin was scheduled to begin reading out the verdict ? a process that could take weeks ? at 10 a.m.

But when scores of reporters arrived at Moscow's Khamovnichesky court, they found a single sheet of paper on the door saying the verdict had been postponed.

"The announcement of the verdict in criminal case no. 1-23/10 on charges against Khodorkovsky M.B. will ... take place on Dec. 27, 2010, at 10:00 a.m.," the notice said. A court spokeswoman confirmed the notice but gave no reasons for it.

"The court does not explain cause of the postponement," spokeswoman Natalia Vasilyeva told reporters.

Lawyers for Khodorkovsky, 47, said they hadn't been informed of the decision. Khodorkovsky's mother, Marina, also was not told.

In the subzero chill outside the courthouse, the 76-year-old suggested that the delay was meant to cause inconvenience.

"And of course they would like to make everyone 'happy' over the holidays," she added with sarcasm.

The verdict and sentencing in Khodorkovsky's second trial will be closely watched because his current prison sentence will end fewer than six months before the 2012 presidential election.

Political analysts said the delay smacked of the Soviet practice of giving news that could spark government criticism in the holiday season, when fewer people were paying attention.

"The Kremlin wants to have the announcement closer to the New Year's celebration, when no one cares about politics," said Yevgeny Minchenko, director of the Moscow-based International Institute of Political Analysis.

He said the postponement did not point to an acquittal. "It will be bad news, it's just a question of how bad now," he said.

The verdict is seen as a litmus test of whether President Dmitry Medvedev has the will to tinker with one of the most controversial decisions of Putin's 2000-2008 presidency.

The fate of Khodorkovsky, once the country's richest man, is so politically charged that lawyers say it will be decided by the Kremlin, not the courts.

After Khodorkovsky's arrest in 2003, his Yukos oil empire was bankrupted by back-tax claims and sold off, mostly to state-run companies such as Rosneft.

Khodorkovsky's supporters have cast the trials as part of a Kremlin-driven campaign to punish Khodorkovsky for perceived challenges to Putin, to keep Russia's billionaire tycoons in line and to tighten the state's grip on the lucrative oil industry.

Putin dominates what officials call a ruling tandem with Medvedev, even though as prime minister, he is the president's subordinate. Both men say they will decide jointly who will run for president in 2012.

Medvedev has aired ambitious plans to modernize Russia and improve the rule of law but has made little visible progress. Kremlin critics dismiss his statements as window-dressing for Putin's continued rule.

(Published by The Moscow Times - December 15, 2010)

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