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Verdict delayed in oil tycoon Khodorkovsky’s case

SHARE Verdict delayed in oil tycoon Khodorkovsky’s case

MOSCOW — A Russian judge on Wednesday postponed delivering 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, now set to begin Dec. 27.

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 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 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 and said he feared it would allow 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 court only to find the notice of the delay 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 that 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.

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

President Dmitry Medvedev, who despite his title remains 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.

The outcome of the Khodorkovsky trial is seen as a test of whether Medvedev has any real intention — or real power — to follow through on his pledges.