Verdict expected early next week over charge against Alexander Lebedev

 

Moscow

The judge presiding over the trial of Alexander Lebedev, Russian businessman and financial backer of The Independent, expects to reach a verdict early next week. Mr Lebedev is accused of "hooliganism motivated by political hatred", over throwing a pair of punches at fellow tycoon Sergei Polonsky during a 2011 television programme. He could go to jail for up to five years if Judge Andrei Bakhvalov finds him guilty.

Although it is clear from the video evidence that Mr Lebedev did strike Mr Polonsky, the prosecution's attempts to prove the charges of "political hatred", which are the key to the long potential sentence, have often descended into farce. Mr Lebedev has said that the case is politically motivated due to his backing for opposition causes and the Russian investigative newspaper Novaya Gazeta, and has called the charges "fabricated".

Today Mr Lebedev's defence team read a number of character references to the court from Russian personalities, notably a group of actors from the Chekhov Theatre in Yalta, where Mr Lebedev has supported renovation efforts. He has also amassed a number of character references from Western celebrities, including John Malkovich, Keira Knightley and Bono. The letter from the Irish musician, published on Mr Lebedev's blog yesterday, says that Mr Lebedev is a man of "deceny and integrity" and is a "serious philanthropist". The prosecution, however, has said it believes the character references are inadmissible as evidence as they have not been verified by a notary.

The judge has ruled that the case can be completed without an appearance from Mr Polonsky himself. Despite being the key witness in the case, his lawyers say he cannot attend as he is not allowed to leave Cambodia, where he was released on bail after allegedly assaulting local sailors. However, television footage suggests Mr Polonsky has actually skipped bail and fled to Israel in recent weeks. A criminal case over a £120m embezzlement has also been opened against him in Russia, meaning he could be arrested if he did try to return to testify in court.

On Thursday, Mr Lebedev himself will be cross-examined, and then the lawyers will give their final arguments on Friday. The judge has said he wants to issue a verdict early next week.

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