Khodorkovsky trial to deliver verdict on Russian politics

Tycoon hated by Putin faces 14 more years in jail for allegedly stealing $25bn of oil

Few people pick a fight with Vladimir Putin and come out on top. Mikhail Khodorkovsky, once Russia's richest man, has spent most of the past seven years in a Siberian jail for alleged tax evasion after falling foul of the former president, who is now the country's Prime Minister.

This morning a verdict is due in Mr Khodorkovsky's second trial, which could see him receive a further blow from Mr Putin and be sent down for another 14 years for allegedly stealing $25bn of oil from his own company.

In recent weeks, Mr Putin and Mr Khodorkovsky have shown that the ill feeling between them still runs deep, with both men using the media to engage in a vicious battle of words. The Prime Minister compared the jailed oligarch to the US fraudster Bernard Madoff and suggested that he might be guilty of yet more crimes, while Mr Khodorkovsky called Mr Putin a "pitiable" figure who loves dogs but hates humans.

The verdict, which will be read out today in a shabby central Moscow courtroom, will show whether Mr Putin is still the most powerful man in Russia or whether his successor, Dmitry Medvedev, will begin to deliver on his promises of liberalisation.

Mr Khodorkovsky's fate is technically in the hands of Judge Viktor Danilkin, but analysts say the decision will probably have been taken in the Kremlin.

A guilty verdict would prove that President Medvedev, who came to the power promising to end "legal nihilism", has not been able to step out of Mr Putin's shadow. An innocent verdict would demonstrate that Mr Medvedev seriously wants to be his own man – something that has appeared doubtful because his liberal words have hardly been reflected in his deeds during the two-and-a-half years of his presidency.

Many believe Mr Khodorkovsky's woes stem from a personal vendetta against him by Mr Putin, after the tycoon broke an unwritten pact between Russia's oligarchs and the Kremlin that they could keep their dubious wealth as long as they stayed out of politics. Mr Khodorkovsky has insisted that the initial charges against him were concocted by crooked officials who wanted to carve up his business empire.

Mr Medvedev weighed into the debate about Mr Khodorkovsky last week, making a rare and thinly-veiled attack on Mr Putin for making pubic comments on the case. "Neither the President nor any other state official has the right to comment on this particular case before the verdict is passed," said Mr Medvedev, just a week after Mr Putin did exactly that.

In a question-and-answer session on Russian television, Mr Putin was asked about Mr Khodorkovsky and quoted a famous Russian song, stating that "a thief should be in prison". He compared Mr Khodorkovsky to Madoff, the financial fraudster serving 150 years in a US jail, and said the comparative leniency of Mr Khodorkovsky's sentence showed that Russia had "some of the most humane courts in the world". Mr Putin has previously compared the jailed oligarch to Al Capone.

In comments that lawyers said added to the pressure for a guilty verdict, Mr Putin as good as ordered the judge how to rule: "We must operate based on the fact that Khodorkovsky's crimes have been proven in court," he said. Mr Khodorkovsky responded with an open letter to a Russian newspaper, calling Mr Putin "pitiable" and "lonely", and suggesting that all his attempts to appear macho in front of the Russian people were borne out of deep personal complexes.

The moment of truth for Mr Khodorkovsky is likely to come this morning. The judge could take several days to read out the whole statement, with the verdict announced only at the end, but defence lawyers say the ruling itself should be immediately apparent from the judge's tone and language.

A verdict was due to be issued earlier this month but lawyers and journalists showed up at court on the day to find a piece of paper pinned to the door, notifying them that the hearing had been postponed. Many supporters of Mr Khodorkovsky suspect the shift in date was designed to minimise the fallout from a guilty verdict, with foreign media distracted by the Christmas break and Russia about to enter 10 days of new year public holidays.

Mr Khodorkovsky's family has not expressed much hope of a positive outcome. "My husband will stay in prison till 2012, that's for sure," his wife, Inna, said. "And who knows what will happen after that? No one."

Is oligarch guilty until proven innocent?

What is Mr Khodorkovsky accused of?

Prosecutors claim he stole over $25bn of oil from his own company over a period of several years – essentially, the entire output of the company.



Why is there a second trial?

Mr Khodorkovsky's defence say that the second trial is a logical nonsense – in the first trial, the oligarch was convicted of tax evasion; now he is being accused of stealing the same oil he supposedly didn't pay tax on.

A more cynical answer is that figures in the Kremlin panicked that Mr Khodorkovsky was due to be released in 2011 and scrambled to put together another case.

What effect does Mr Khodorkovsky's case have on the business climate in Russia?

Many Russian businessmen have skeletons in their closet from the chaotic 1990s, and with the Khodorkovsky cases the Kremlin has shown it is not afraid to wield the law arbitrarily if big business does not toe the Kremlin line.



How free are Russia's courts?

Russia's courts are notoriously corrupt at every level, something that even the President himself has admitted. In a case of this magnitude, it is clear that the judge is under serious political pressure, and defence lawyers say that he has repeatedly favoured the prosecutors during the trial.

Is there any chance at all of an innocent verdict?

It seems extremely unlikely, given Mr Putin's recent comments. An innocent verdict really would be a sensational sign of a dramatic split between Mr Putin and Mr Medvedev. Few people expect this to happen.



What do ordinary Russians think of Mr Khodorkovsky?

Few ordinary Russians have much time for the oligarchs, who got obscenely rich at a time when many people were living below the poverty line. However, Mr Khodorkovsky's years in prison have given him an air of legitimacy. The authorities worry that he could become a figurehead for the opposition.

Shaun Walker

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