Russian oil magnate is kept waiting for inevitable guilty verdict

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The Independent Online

Mikhail Khodorkovsky, once Russia's richest man but now its most famous court defendant, has received a strong signal that he is likely to be kept in jail for years and can expect no leniency.

Nineteen months after Mr Khodorkovsky was arrested at gunpoint on a Siberian runway and charged with fraud and embezzlement, a Moscow judge began reading the verdict in a case that has led to widespread questioning of the Kremlin's commitment to an impartial judiciary.

Though Judge Irina Kolesnikova did not finish reading a verdict that is said to run to 1,000 pages yesterday and adjourned the proceedings after just a few hours, she said enough to make it clear that the oligarch who dared challenge President Vladimir Putin will be found guilty, probably on all counts.

Ms Kolesnikova said Mr Khodorkovsky, 41, had committed fraud and theft, had ignored court orders and had fiddled his income tax returns while head of Yukos, the oil firm he built up.

The oligarch was accused of supplying "mendacious information" and of being part of "a criminal enterprise". His lawyers accused the judge of appearing to regurgitate the state prosecutor's conclusions almost word for word, even making the same grammatical mistakes. The lawyers said the speech served only to confirm their worst fears.

Yuri Schmidt, a defence lawyer, said: "Naturally, if they [the judges] have already recognised a crime has been committed based on these charges then, of course, the verdict will be guilty. There are still some charges they have not covered yet."

The scene outside the Meshansky courthouse, a down-at-heel yellow brick building in central Moscow, was lively as more than 500 pro-Khodorkovsky activists thronged the pavements. Police looked on uncomfortably as banners proclaiming their support for the defendant were waved frantically and supporters chanted anti-government slogans.

"We've had enough of Putin" was a regular refrain, as was, "Give him his freedom!" and "Fascists!"

Vladimir Ivanov, a pensioner carrying a portrait of the man he predicted would one day be president, said Mr Khodorkovsky was his only hope. "He tried to argue with Putin openly. Maybe he did steal from the people, but good on him. I'd rather he did the stealing than Putin, who would just spend the money on another dirty little war."

Anti-Khodorkovsky supporters, fewer in number, were also in evidence and heated disputes ensued.

An elderly man who said he was a communist wandered through the crowds with a sandwich board which read: "I support the state's accusations. Send him to jail!" Prominent leaders of the country's fledgling pro-democracy movement mingled among the crowd, including the former world chess champion Gary Kasparov.

Towards the end of the demonstration riot police moved in, roughly detaining dozens of activists.

The judge resumes reading her verdict today.

If the state prosecutor achieves the verdict he has called for, Mr Khodorkovsky will be sentenced to 10 years in jail and will also face new money laundering charges.