MOSCOW – A Moscow court is expected Monday to begin announcing the verdict in the second trial of former oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, a case some see as a bellwether of Russia’s political future.
Once the country’s richest man, now its most prominent prisoner, Khodorkovsky, 47, is already serving an eight-year sentence for fraud.
But with his release scheduled for next year, Khodorkovsky is now on trial on charges of money laundering and embezzlement that could see the head of the now-defunct Yukos oil giant stay in jail until 2017.
The pursuit of Khodorkovsky has been the most controversial legal action of the post-Soviet era.
Khodorkovsky’s supporters see him as a martyr punished for daring to challenge strongman Vladimir Putin; but Russian officials view him as a corrupt tycoon who profited by breaking the law.
The verdict will be watched as a possible indicator of Russia’s future direction under premier Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev, amid speculation that Putin is planning a return to the Kremlin in 2012 polls.
“My husband will definitely remain in jail until 2012,” Khodorkovsky’s wife Inna told the latest edition of Snob magazine. “After that, who knows what will happen? Nobody.”
Moscow’s Khamovnichesky court had been due to start reading the verdict on Khodorkovsky and his co-accused Platon Lebedev, 54, on December 15, but unexpectedly postponed the announcement without giving an explanation.
The next day Putin said Khodorkovsky deserved to be in prison, in comments decried by the fallen magnate’s legal team as direct interference and sparking fears that he now had little chance of being acquitted.
Aides later insisted that Putin was only referring to the first trial.
Khodorkovsky launched his own a lacerating attack against Putin on Friday, saying he pitied a man who could only feel love for dogs.
“A love for dogs is the only sincere kind feeling that penetrates the armour of ice worn by the national symbol of the start of the millennium,” Khodorkovsky wrote in an article for the Nezavisimaya Gaeta.
“A man who wears such an armour cannot be happy.”
Putin’s widely publicised fondness for dogs is one of the few soft sides to his hardman image. He was recently shown coddling a new dog he had named Buffy, a gift from the Bulgarian prime minister.
Khodorkovsky is accused of having stolen 218 million metric tons of oil, worth more than 26 billion dollars, from his own Yukos company between 1998 and 2003 — a charge the defence team says is absurd.
Like many other billionaires, Khodorkovsky made his fortune in controversial loans-for-shares privatization in the 1990s. But he quickly built his Yukos oil company into the first Russian major that adopted international accounting standards.
While other tycoons chose to toe the Kremlin line however, Khodorkovsky openly defied Russia’s top boss by financing the political opposition.
When storm clouds began gathering, he refused to leave the country and found himself arrested on the tarmac in Siberia in 2003.