- Associated Press - Wednesday, December 15, 2010

MOSCOW (AP) — A Russian judge on Wednesday postponed the long-awaited verdict in the second trial of jailed oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, a case that has come to define Russia under Vladimir Putin.

A court spokeswoman said Judge Viktor Danilkin gave no reason for postponing the reading of the verdict, which is now set to begin Dec. 27.

Hundreds of Khodorkovsky supporters rallied outside the courthouse, holding up signs urging the judge to “show courage” or appealing to President Dmitry Medvedev to free himself from Mr. Putin’s hold and follow up on promises to improve Russia’s legal system.

Khodorkovsky, 47, was Russia’s richest man when he was arrested in 2003 and then convicted of underpaying taxes on the profits from his Yukos oil company. The politically driven case was seen as punishment for daring to challenge Mr. Putin’s political and economic power, in part by funding opposition parties in parliament.

With Khodorkovsky’s eight-year prison sentence coming to an end, he and his partner Platon Lebedev were hit with new charges of stealing all the oil Yukos produced from 1998 to 2003 and laundering the proceeds.

Numerous witnesses, including current and former government officials, testified during the 20-month trial that the charges were improbable if not absurd.

Yet Mr. Putin, who was president during Khodorkovsky’s first trial and is now prime minister, has shown no sign of softening his attitude toward the former oligarch, and hopes for an acquittal were low.

Khodorkovsky’s elderly father lamented the delay, saying it will allow Mr. Putin to put additional pressure on the court during his annual televised call-in show Thursday.

“He will say another nasty thing and that will be it,” said Boris Khodorkovsky, who was among the crowd of journalists and supporters who showed up at the courthouse only to find the delay notice taped to the door.

Khodorkovsky’s lawyers and supporters said the new date between Christmas and New Year’s appeared to have been chosen in the hope the verdict would receive less attention during the holidays.

If convicted, Khodorkovsky and Lebedev face prison sentences of up to 14 years, which could keep them in prison until at least 2017.

Mr. Putin has not ruled out a return to the presidency in 2012, and critics suspect him of wanting to keep Khodorkovsky incarcerated until after the election.

Mr. Medvedev, who despite his title remains Mr. Putin’s junior partner, has promised to establish independent courts and strengthen the rule of law as part of his mission to modernize Russia and attract more foreign investment.

Mr. Medvedev faced pressure from abroad as well over the treatment of Khodorkovsky.

“We cannot stand by idly when rule of law and human values are being so openly abused and compromised,” said a letter sent this week by 50 Western politicians and scholars, including former foreign ministers David Miliband of Britain and Bernard Kouchner of France and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson.

The letter also condemned the death in prison last year of Sergei Magnitsky, a lawyer who was arrested after exposing high-level fraud within Russian law enforcement agencies. The European Parliament was to vote Thursday on a proposal to punish officials linked to Magnitsky’s death by denying them visas and seizing their assets. A similar measure is pending in the U.S. Congress.

Khodorkovsky’s arrest and the state takeover of his oil company in many ways set the stage for the transformation of Russia under Putin.

With a single stroke, the Kremlin reasserted control over the energy sector and made clear to wealthy businessmen that they served at the pleasure of the state. Members of the security services and law enforcement agencies were given a green light to seize parts of Russia’s economic pie.

The Kremlin also consolidated its hold over politics. Soon after Khodorkovsky’s arrest, parties that he had funded were shut out of parliament or sidelined.

Copyright © 2016 The Washington Times, LLC.

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