The eagerly anticipated verdict in the trial of Yukos oil giant founder Mikhail Khodorkovsky was unexpectedly postponed Wednesday amid speculation Russia wanted to avoid controversy ahead of WWII celebrations in Moscow.
Mikhail Khodorkovsky will have to wait until May 16 for his verdict
Russian officials delayed the verdict without explanation, but Khodorkovsky supporters dismissed speculation of a reprieve for the man once seen as a paragon of fair business play in Russia.
"It is cynical, it is heartbreaking for the families and it is a clear statement from the Russian authorities not only that they are above the law but they are transparently willing to flout due process," Robert Amsterdam, an international legal adviser to Khodorkvosky, told the AFP news agency.
No explanation provided
The verdict in a trial watched intently worldwide by rights advocates and foreign investors alike was scheduled to be read by judges in a Moscow courtroom and its postponement until May 16 was announced in a terse statement taped to the glass door at the main entrance of the building.
Demonstrators hold up posters of Khodorkovsky
With several dozen protesters shouting "Shame on the courts!" outside, defense lawyers entered the courthouse and reemerged soon afterwards, reporting that they had merely been asked to sign a document acknowledging the rescheduling of the verdict hearing.
"No one yet knows the reason" for the postponement, said a Khodorkovsky defense attorney, Igor Mikheyev.
The delay came two days after President Vladimir Putin used his annual state of the nation address to describe further development of democracy and the rule of law -- including insistence on a genuinely independent judiciary -- as Russia's main priority for the years ahead.
Putin warned Khodorkovsky and other "oligarchs" soon after he was elected to his first term in 2000 to stay out of politics, and the trial of the Yukos founder has been viewed widely as politically driven Kremlin retribution for Khodorkovsky's funding of groups opposed to Putin.
Russian President Vladimir Putin
Putin's (photo) speech Monday however was characterized by local political experts as a landmark departure from his usual theme of stability and a "strong state," prompting one top Kremlin advisor to speculate Tuesday that it could bear directly and favorably on the Khodorkovsky verdict.
"Judging from the text of the address, ensuring the independence of the courts from the executive branch could produce a correct and fair verdict to free two citizens under investigation from tax terrorism," Andrei Illarionov, a senior advisor to Putin, told Interfax news agency.
Amsterdam said he welcomed Illarionov's comments but did not interpret them as a serious indication that a sentence for Khodorkovsky widely expected to be harsh might be diminished.
Bush and Putin are due to meet in Moscow in May
Instead, he said, it was a reflection of Russian authorities' efforts to prevent a large cloud from darkening celebrations in Moscow on May 9 commemorating the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II and due to be attended by US President George W. Bush and dozens of other leaders.
"Pushing it past May 9 is just a further demonstration of the actual operation of a political show trial," Amsterdam said. "They will come up with a reason, some kind of dressed-up reason" for the delay. "But there is in my view no other reason."
Interfax news agency, citing an unnamed source, said the verdict was put off because judges had not had enough time in the two weeks since the trial wrapped up to finish writing it. Opposition politicians however scoffed at that explanation.
"This is perhaps some kind of intrigue," Irina Khakamada, leader of the Our Choice party, told Echo Moskvi radio. "It demonstrates yet again that in our country court rulings derive not from the law but from the will of top politicians."
Maximum of ten years
Khodorkovsky, 41, and Platon Lebedev, his 46-year old co-defendant and former top deputy in Yukos, have been charged with massive fraud and tax evasion and each face up to 10 years in prison if convicted.
Mikhail Khodorkovsky, left, and his co-defendant, Platon Lebedev
Lebedev was arrested on July 2, 2003, followed by Khodorkovsky on October 25 that year. Both have been held in prison since then and have appeared throughout their trial inside a cage with metal bars that was placed in the courtroom.
Speaking to reporters outside the courtroom, Khodorkovsky's father, Boris Khodorkovsky, said the judges had decided to delay the verdict "due to the massive interest" it had generated among international politicians, investors and journalists. The trial itself wrapped up on April 11 with Khodorkovsky defiantly rejecting the charges against him -- as he had throughout the 10 months of court proceedings -- as a "farce" and vowing to appeal.
As the trial of Khodorkovsky has unfolded in the past year, the Yukos oil empire that he built has also been effectively dismantled by the Russian state. Last December, Yukos' crown production jewel, subsidiary Yuganskneftegaz, was auctioned and in essence re-nationalized by the state.