Court opens session to read verdict in Khodorkovsky trial

A judge began reading the verdict Monday in the politically charged trial of oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the most closely watched courtroom proceedings of post-Soviet Russia.

Khodorkovsky, who headed the Yukos oil company, is charged with fraud and tax evasion. His arrest and trial have been seen by many as a Kremlin-directed campaign to undermine his political clout and punish him for funding opposition parties.

The case has raised questions about President Vladimir Putin's commitment to the rule of law and has disturbed foreign investors.

In the cramped courtroom, judge Irina Kolesnikova began reading aloud in the early afternoon from a stack of papers about 25 centimeters (10 inches thick). The scale of the paperwork indicated that reading the verdict could take several days.

It was not immediately clear whether the verdicts would be given charge by charge or whether the determination would be given only after reading all of the charges.

Khodorkovsky faces seven charges in all, as does his co-defendant and business partner Platon Lebedev.

Khodorkovsky, sitting in a courtroom cage as do defendants in all Russian trials, was dressed in a brown suede jacket and blue jeans. He smiled at family members in the courtroom and jokingly mimed to his wife to take off her sunglasses.

"The sentence for Khodorkovsky is awaited by practically all the citizens of the country. Without exaggeration, it is a signal event that will determine the direction of the country's development for many years to come," the Izvestia daily commented.

Khodorkovsky arrived at a hidden side entrance to the court in a van from the jail cell where he has been held for 19 months. As always, he was hustled from the van straight into the building, while a crowd of journalists and a heavier-than-usual police contingent waited outside.

Hundreds of supporters and opponents gathered behind police barriers.

Defense lawyers have said that it could take up to three days for Kolesnikova to read the verdict, allowing time for an explanation of her decision under each charge. Russian judges are required to read the verdicts out loud.

Prosecutors have called for Khodorkovsky, 41, to receive the maximum 10-year sentence. The prosecutor-general's office said Friday that it also planned to file new charges against Khodorkovsky, in a move defense lawyers called a crude attempt to ensure that the Meshchansky Court sends him to prison on Monday.

"The verdict will not represent the evidence, the government has not proved their case against them. The best the government has proved is that the criminal activity did not occur, but unfortunately that won't be reflected in the verdict," Sanford Saunders, an American lawyer in Khodorkovsky's defense team, told Associated Press Television News.

The sentence had originally been scheduled for April 27, but was postponed at the last moment. The delay was widely believed to be due to the fact that Putin was soon due to host dozens of foreign leaders in Moscow for VE Day celebrations and the Kremlin did not want any unpleasant questions about the jailed tycoon to spoil its pomp-filled celebration.

Khodorkovsky and Lebedev, whose verdict also was expected Monday, are charged with rigging a privatization auction in 1994, stripping profits from a major fertilizer component maker, illegally using onshore tax havens to slash Yukos' tax bills and dodging millions in personal income tax.

Khodorkovsky was one of the so-called oligarchs who made vast fortunes in the 1990s through often-murky deals stemming from the privatization of state enterprises. But he later tried to shed his robber-baron image by turning Yukos into what was regarded as Russia's best-run major company and by starting a foundation to promote civil-society initiatives.

Khodorkovsky was arrested in October 2003 in a dramatic raid on his jet while it sat on the tarmac of a Siberian airport. While he has been in custody, Yukos has been hit with huge claims for back taxes.

Yukos was stripped of its giant Siberian production unit Yuganskneftegaz to pay part of its tax bills. The company that once had a market value of US$40 billion is now valued at just US$2 billion; badly burnt investors expect it to fall to zero.

ALEX NICHOLSON, Associated Press Writer

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