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Russia: A Verdict As Long As 'War And Peace'

Demonstrators will need new permits to keep up with the verdict's slow pace After five days of reading the verdict in the case of former Yukos CEO Mikhail Khodorkovskii and his fellow defendants, the judges of Moscow's Meshchanskii Raion court on 20 May were less than one-third of the way through the 1,000-page document. Moreover, they had not yet issued a single solid decision, although all observers agree that the language and tone of the verdict indicates the three defendants will almost certainly be convicted on all charges.

According to "Nezavisimaya gazeta" on 19 May, the judges are reading between 20 and 40 pages of the verdict each day, cutting each day's session short after about three hours of reading. Lawyer Pavel Astakhov told "Moskovskie novosti," No. 19, that he has never known a court to produce such a long verdict or to read it so slowly. He said that in the embezzlement trial of Valentina Soloveva, the court read out its 860-page verdict in two days. In the case of Alfa-Bank's libel claim against the Kommersant publishing house, Astakhov said, the court extended its working day until 8 p.m. in order to read the entire verdict in one day. He declined to speculate on why the court in the Khodorkovskii case is taking so long to deliver its verdict, saying that the Moscow City Lawyers Collegium prohibits attorneys from commenting on cases in which they are not directly involved.

Record Pace

Defense lawyer Genrikh Padva told "Nezavisimaya gazeta" on 20 May, "I don't remember what the record is for reading a verdict in my experience, but I can say that the Meshchanskii Raion Court of Moscow has already broken it." Fellow defense lawyer Yurii Shmidt told Regnum on 20 May that the defense team now expects the reading of the verdict to last at least 10 more days.

When the court began reading the verdict on 16 May, almost no one expected that the process would take more than two days. Pro-Khodorkovskii demonstrators applied for a permit to hold a demonstration outside the court on 16 May from 10 a.m. until 2 p.m. However, anti-Khodorkovskii protesters seemed more prescient, "Moskovskie novosti" reported. Two Moscow residents identified only as Sergei Basyukov and S.A. Michurin applied to hold a demonstration outside the courthouse each day from 16 May until 20 May from 9 a.m. until 6 p.m.
Analysts also argue that the purpose of dragging out the verdict is to reduce public interest in the case. By the end of the week, media were reporting that even most of the defense team and the defendants' relatives had stopped attending the hearings, as had many journalists.

Many media reports noted that the anti-Khodorkovskii protesters were particularly well organized, sporting professionally printed signs in Russian and English. "Nezavisimaya gazeta," which is controlled by former oligarch Boris Berezovskii, a dedicated foe of President Vladimir Putin, reported on 19 May that Committee-2008 press spokeswoman Marina Litvinovich had presented photographs of young men carrying stacks of anti-Khodorkovskii placards down a street adjacent to the Federal Security Service (FSB) building on Lubyanka Square. Litvinovich told the daily that she had seen the men emerge from a nearby cafe called Shield And Sword. FSB spokesman Sergei Ignatchenko told the daily that the FSB was not involved in organizing any public demonstrations.

Kremlin Caution

Most analysts argued that the Kremlin is orchestrating the reading of the verdict, which was originally scheduled to be read on 27 April but was postponed without an official explanation until 16 May. Observers speculated that the purpose of the delay was to avoid having the trial overshadow the 9 May commemoration of the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II in Europe, which was marked in Moscow by celebrations involving more than 50 heads of state.

Among the reasons given by analysts for the slow reading of the verdict are that the Kremlin wants to create the appearance that the court has been meticulous in its consideration of the evidence. However, most observers agree that this argument is not working out; the fact that the court's verdict so far echoes word-for-word the prosecution's charges against the defendants has been seen by many as undermining faith in the independence of the court. "The fact that the announcement of the verdict is dragging on clearly shows that the Russian judicial system is highly politicized," political analyst Sergei Markov told Interfax on 20 May. "The people who have set up such a system are inflicting damage on Russia." Politika foundation head Vyacheslav Nikonov told the news agency that the fact that the Kremlin is so closely associated with the prosecution in this case means that "an acquittal would have been a blow to the authorities' legitimacy."

Chipping Away At Oligarchs

In addition, observers believe that the state media is using the time to swing public opinion away from sympathy for Khodorkovskii. Kremlin-connected political consultant Gleb Pavlovskii has been given particular prominence on state-controlled television, including a long interview on RTR's main analytical "Vesti-Podrobnosti" on 16 May. In that interview, Pavlovskii said that the oligarchs "tried to buy [Russia's] political system" and to "put themselves between the citizens and the state." "Then the state becomes private property," Pavlovskii said, "no longer the property of the citizenry. People couldn't go along with that. This is the moral problem that proved to be the undoing of Yukos." He further accused Yukos of waging a deliberate campaign to smear Russia's image abroad and domestically.

Pavlovskii concluded by saying that after the Yukos case there is "some real chance for liberalization of political and economic life in Russia." "The lesson of Yukos," he said, "is whether we want to be free in our country or not. If we want to be a democracy, we must have rule by the people. If the people want to have a credible government, they must have a state and they must strengthen it."

'Give The Public What We Want'

Analysts also argue that the purpose of dragging out the verdict is to reduce public interest in the case. By the end of the week, media were reporting that even most of the defense team and the defendants' relatives had stopped attending the hearings, as had many journalists. "Nezavisimaya gazeta" reported on 19 May that increasingly the words "I'm bored" and "nothing interesting" are dominating conversations at the courthouse and trial participants are most often asked, "How long are they going to read?" Some observers also note that the Russian media have been flooded with stories of rumors of the purportedly imminent dismissal of the government of Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov, which they argue is also a distraction tactic.

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