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Judge hears A-listers’ personal references in support of Alexander Lebedev

Kevin Spacey and John Malkovich among those to offer support as tycoon claims his punch was to ‘neutralise the threat’

Alexander Lebedev has been cross-examined in a Moscow court as his trial for “hooliganism motivated by political hatred” draws to a close.

Mr Lebedev faces up to five years in jail if found guilty over a 2011 incident when he punched a fellow Russian businessman during the recording of a television programme.

The part-owner of the Russian opposition newspaper Novaya Gazeta and the financial backer of The Independent says that the case against him is “fabricated” because of his opposition activity, and said in court that he hit Sergei Polonsky because the property tycoon was behaving aggressively and provocatively.

“I only did it to make him come to his senses,” said Mr Lebedev. He claims that Mr Polonsky had been acting in a threatening way in the dressing rooms before the recording of the programme. Mr Lebedev said that when Mr Polonsky uttered the phrase “I’d like to hit someone in the chops”, which immediately preceded Mr Lebedev’s blows, the property developer also raised his hand in a gesture which he thought could be the start of an attack on him, and so he pushed Mr Polonsky back to “neutralise the threat”.

Mr Polonsky himself has not attended the hearings. He was arrested in Cambodia in January over an alleged assault on local sailors and is believed to have fled to Israel. He is also wanted on embezzlement charges in Russia. Judge Andrei Bakhvalov has ruled that the case can be heard without the testimony of the key witness.

Mr Lebedev has amassed nearly 100 character references from figures as diverse as his old bosses when he was a KGB agent posted to London, to Hollywood A-list actors. Today the court was read references by Kevin Spacey, Hugh Grant, John Malkovich and Elton John, as well as from Chulpan Khamatova, a well-known Russian actress. The judge appeared visibly bored during some of the readings and grimaced at a suggestion in Spacey’s letter that if Mr Lebedev was found guilty it would be “an injustice”.

Russian actress Liya Akhedzhakova said in her reference that Mr Lebedev had “hit Polonsky in the face on behalf of all of us”.

The opposition objected to the majority of the character references, saying they had not been authenticated by a notary.

Today the court will hear the closing arguments from both sides. A verdict is expected early next week. Less than 1 per cent of court cases in Russia result in innocent verdicts.