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Europe

Russia's Wealthiest Man Goes on Trial

Billionaire businessman Mikhail Khodorkovsky went on trial Wednesday for tax evasion and fraud. Critics say the former oil company boss is being prosecuted because his political ambitions posed a threat to the Kremlin.

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Khodorkovsky's supporters say the Kremlin is behind the tycoon's trial

Russian oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky's trial was postponed after only a few hours Wednesday because one of the defense lawyers fell ill. No date was set for the trial's resumption.

Khodorkovsky, the former head of Yukos oil company, and his close associate and former Yukos manager Platon Lebedev, face seven criminal charges, including tax evasion, fraud and embezzlement.

Khodorkovsky's Toronto-based lawyer Robert Amsterdam was convinced his client would be convicted. "I'm expecting nothing more than I have seen in the past. This is a country which destroys its finest company while its senior members languish in jail illegally," he told journalists. "The final verdict? Guilty!" Amsterdam said.

If convicted, Khodorkovsky and Lebedev, who are both pleading not guilty, could each be sentenced to up to ten years in jail. Khodorkovsky has been held in pre-trial detention since October; Lebedev since July.

The case is widely viewed as the most important trial since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Khodorkovsky's supporters say he has been targeted because he criticized President Vladimir Putin's policies and indicated he might run for president in 2008.

Putin deflects criticism

"As to what concerns the Yukos affair and what signal we want to send to society, it's not us who's sending the signal but the prosecutor general," Putin said in late May when asked about the case. The president has indicated that the Yukos affair is part of the country's efforts to fight corruption.

The Russian authorities are continuing to put pressure on Yukos, Russia's largest crude oil producer. Last month, they demanded that the company immediately pay around $3.4 billion (€2.8 billion) in unpaid taxes for the year 2000. Yukos will appeal on Friday. The backpayments could force the company into bankruptcy unless Yukos is allowed to sell assets that have been frozen by a court order, Russian newspapers quoted a letter from Yukos to Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov as saying.

Commenting on the letter, analysts said it was an indication that "major shareholders are waving the white flag." They called the move a "formal capitulation" on the part of the company Menatep, through which Khodorkovsky and his partners control Yukos. The letter was effectively a prerequisite for an out of court settlement, pundits said.

Other commentators were less optimistic about the prospect of Yukos surviving the onslaught.

"I personally do not see any other scenario apart from bankruptcy," Stephen Dashevsky, an oil and gas analyst at Aton brokerage in Moscow told Reuters.

Khodorkovsky commands little sympathy among the Russian public, who view the so-called oligarchs -- Russians who rose to riches when the communist economy was privatized -- as thieves.

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