Da The Moscow Times del 28/04/2005
Originale su http://www.themoscowtimes.com/stories/2005/04/28/001.html

Khodorkovsky Verdict Is Postponed

di Valeria Korchagina

The Meshchansky district court postponed its much-anticipated verdict in the trial of Yukos founders Mikhail Khodorkovsky and Platon Lebedev by three weeks on Wednesday, sparing President Vladimir Putin from having to face any uncomfortable questions when he hosts world leaders for Victory Day festivities.

A short note announcing the delay until May 16 was posted on a courthouse door Wednesday morning. No advance notice was given to Khodorkovsky's and Lebedev's lawyers or the swarms of local and international journalists who showed up outside the court.

Supporters of the two businessmen, who face up to 10 years in prison if convicted of multiple fraud and tax evasion charges, said they had no doubt that the postponement was an attempt to strike the trial off the agenda of the May 9 gathering of international leaders, who will be in town to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II.

"I think there is a direct link here. If the verdict were to be delivered today or tomorrow, it would have been an international scandal," Sergei Mitrokhin, a leader of the liberal Yabloko party, told reporters.

The delay also might defuse tensions for Putin during a visit to Israel, where three of Khodorkovsky's partners have sought refuge from criminal charges in Russia. Putin arrived in Israel for a two-day visit on Wednesday evening.

The verdict will be the climax of the state's two-year legal onslaught against Khodorkovsky, his business partners and Yukos, once the country's largest oil company. The state tore Yukos apart by effectively renationalizing its main production unit on back tax claims late last year.

The case dealt a body blow to investor confidence, as Russian and foreign businessmen worried about how far the state would go in its back tax investigations.

It also took a political tinge when Russian opposition and Western governments expressed concern that the state was prosecuting Khodorkovsky for his political ambitions.

Mitrokhin said that if the verdict had been delivered Wednesday, it probably would have been milder than the 10 years sought by the prosecution so as to minimize the Kremlin's exposure to renewed criticism from the West.

"By May 16, all the leaders attending the celebrations will have gone home, and then the authorities will pronounce their sentence," Mitrokhin said.

Khodorkovsky's father, Boris, said the delay appeared to be an attempt to quell interest in the case. He speculated that authorities might be hoping that a postponement or two would lead to fewer journalists and supporters at the verdict.

"It seems to me that it was done to make sure that fewer people come. See how many there are today?" he told dozens of reporters crowded around him.

Across the street from the court, about 200 young protesters carried banners reading "While Trying to Strangle Freedom, You Risk Suffocating in Its Absence!" and "Khodorkovsky, Go Home!"

Activists from Yabloko, the liberal Union of Right Forces party and the Sovest human rights group chanted, "Independence for judges, freedom for Khodorkovsky." Some carried yellow and green balloons -- Yukos' corporate colors -- while others waved party flags.

Chess champion-turned-liberal politician Garry Kasparov said he feared Khodorkovsky would get the maximum sentence. "I don't believe that Khodorkovsky can be freed for as long as Putin is in power," he said.

However, Vladimir Ryzhkov, an independent State Duma deputy, said Wednesday's delay brought hope that the verdict might be more lenient. "Maybe the Kremlin has gained some common sense at last and decided to make the sentence as soft as possible," Ryzhkov said, adding that Khodorkovsky might even be freed.

"I wouldn't want to think that the plan is for world leaders to leave Moscow and for Khodorkovsky to get the maximum sentence," he said.

Khodorkovsky's and Lebedev's lawyers were much less vocal in assessing the reasons for the delay. Khodorkovsky's chief defense lawyer, Genrikh Padva, said delays in verdicts were not uncommon and in this case might be purely technical. For instance, the three judges might not have been able to prepare the verdict on time due to the sheer size of the case.

Russian law does not oblige courts to explain delays in issuing verdicts, and the court offered no explanation Wednesday.

Later Wednesday, Lebedev's lawyer Yevgeny Baru told Ekho Moskvy radio that he could imagine Khodorkovsky and Lebedev being convicted but not being jailed. He added, however, that he would not be surprised if more charges were brought against the two after the trial is over.

A former Yukos security department employee, Alexei Pichugin, was sentenced to 20 years in prison on double murder charges last month and was then charged with a third murder several weeks later.

As youthful protesters mixed with the odd pensioner at the courthouse rally, not all present appeared to be convinced of Khodorkovsky's innocence. Alfred Grenader, 70, mingled with the protesters carrying a small sign of his own, reading, "Bandits Kh. and L. -- to Jail."

Grenader said he had owned shares in Khodorkovsky's Menatep Bank, which went bankrupt after the 1998 ruble crash.

"Just wait till you personally get robbed!" Grenader shouted again and again.

His voice was drowned out by the roars of the youthful protesters, who chanted, "No to Chekist power!"

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