In a surprise decision, a court in Moscow has postponed the reading of a verdict in the second trial of former tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky.
The judgment, expected to begin today, has been delayed until the end of the month.
The announcement came in the form of a note taped to the courthouse door. Khodorkovsky's lawyers and supporters had arrived expecting to hear a judge begin reading the verdict in a second case against the man many now see as Russia's most famous political prisoner.
Khodorkovsky's mother Marina Khodorkovskaya told reporters crowding in freezing temperatures outside the courthouse that the judge gave no explanation.
"A spokeswoman simply said the court isn't giving a reason, but just informing that the verdict has been postponed until December 27. That's it," Mrs. Khodorkovskaya explained.
Once Russia's richest man, Khodorkovsky is already serving an eight-year sentence on charges of fraud and tax evasion that will keep him in prison until October 2011.
He's since been accused of stealing $25 billion dollars of his own company's oil, an allegation brought months before he was eligible for parole in 2007. Many believe he and his business partner Platon Lebedev -- who was jailed with him -- were charged as an excuse to keep them in jail past presidential elections in 2012.
Yuri Schmidt, one of Khodorkovsky's lawyers, told reporters he didn't believe the judge postponed the issuing of the verdict simply because it wasn't ready.
"If he'd really known they wouldn't have enough time to write up the sentence, they wouldn't have posted a notice only on the day of the verdict," Schmidt said.
Human rights activists said the new date was picked to minimize publicity surrounding the verdict because most people would be on their winter vacations then.
Maxim Dbar, spokesman for Khodorkovsky's legal team, declined to comment on the speculation, but said regarding the postponement, "It happened during Khodorkovsky's first trial, too, when we came on the scheduled day of the verdict and found out the judge changed the date."
Extensions And Postponements
Khodorkovsky was first arrested in 2003. Then head of Russia's biggest oil company, Yukos, he was sentenced to eight years, banished to a prison camp in the desolate city of Chita 4,000 miles east of Moscow. Yukos was broken up and sold in a non-transparent auction to a state-controlled company, part of the Kremlin's drive to put the energy industry back under state control.
Many believe Khodorkovsky's real crime was to have posed then-President Vladimir Putin a political threat by using his vast influence to lobby against the president's aim of building an oil-fuelled authoritarian regime.
German member of parliament Marie-Luise Beck, who traveled to Moscow to attend the trial, said the judgment, when finally read, will be a verdict on the state of authoritarianism in Russia.
"If still there's a decision that says 'guilty', it will send the sign there is no rule of law in Russia."
Prosecutors have asked for a 14-year sentence, but then said they wanted it to include an eight-year sentence that Khodorkovsky and Lebedev are currently serving and which is due to end next year. That would keep the two in prison for six additional years, until 2017.
written by Gregory Feifer