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Why The Khodorkovsky Verdict Is Taking So Long

Former Yukos head Mikhail Khodorkovsky in Moscow's Khamovniki district court for Day Two of the verdict-reading.
Former Yukos head Mikhail Khodorkovsky in Moscow's Khamovniki district court for Day Two of the verdict-reading.
Russia's most famous political prisoner has returned to court to hear the reading of the verdict in the second trial against him for a second day. Yesterday, Judge Viktor Danilkin found Mikhail Khodorkovsky and his business partner, Platon Lebedev, guilty of stealing billions of dollars of oil from Khodorkovsky's Yukos oil company. But they may not find out their sentences for several days.

That's because Russian judges continue the Soviet-era practice of reading verdicts' every word before handing down sentences.

During the former oil tycoon's first trial, judges took 16 days to read the verdict's 662 pages. They repeated many of the prosecutors' indictments almost verbatim, in a move Khodorkovsky's lawyers said was meant to encourage the public to lose interest.

The latest verdict was due to be read earlier this month but was postponed in a move Kremlin critics believe was meant to minimize publicity by taking place during the winter holidays.

Judgments tend to be long because they summarize entire cases, including the charges, evidence supporting the court's findings, and only then actual verdicts and sentences.

Khodorkovsky's latest verdict is 250 pages. Danilkin has read it so far -- seven hours on Monday -- in a quick monotone, unlike the slower pace of the first reading, which critics said was meant to further drag out the process.

Once Russia's richest man, Khodorkovsky is already serving an eight-year sentence on charges of fraud and tax evasion following his arrest in 2003, which has come to symbolize Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's authoritarian rule.

Khodorkovsky has since been accused of stealing $25 billion worth of oil from his own company and laundering the proceeds, an allegation brought months before he was eligible for parole in 2007. Many believe he and Lebedev were charged as an excuse to keep them in jail, possibly until 2017, despite President Dmitry Medvedev's many promises to clean up Russia's notoriously corrupt court system.

Khodorkovsky's supporters say the accusations against him are absurd and contradict the outcome of his first trial. They say he was arrested in 2003 because he posed a political threat to then-President Putin. Most Russians believe Putin retained his grip on power after he stepped down to become prime minister in 2008. Earlier this month, Putin said Khodorkovsky was a "thief" who should sit in jail.

Yesterday's guilty judgment has drawn international condemnation. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton claimed it would have a negative impact on Russia's reputation. German Foreign Minister Guido Westervelle said he was very worried about the verdict, which he said was a "step back."

Khodorkovsky's lawyers say they expect the sentence within a few days, after which they plan to appeal.

-- Gregory Feifer

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