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Court giving Khodorkovsky verdict adjourns
Updated: 2005-05-16 18:52

MOSCOW - The court reading the complex verdict in the fraud and tax evasion trial of oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky adjourned until Tuesday, Russian news agencies reported.

The adjournment was called about three hours after the judge began reading the verdict. The early reading largely reiterated the indictment against Khodorkovsky, which his defense team said almost certainly means he will be found guilty.

Supporters of Russian oil magnate Mikhail Khodorkovsky rally calling for his release during a court session in Moscow May 16, 2005. [Reuters]
Khodorkovsky, who is on trial with business associate Platon Lebedev, was convicted of theft with conspiracy, damage to property rights via fraud, malicious failure to obey a court order and personal tax evasion.

Judges still had to announce their verdicts on three remaining charges. Sentence was due to be passed later.

The 11-month trial has scared investors and soured President Vladimir Putin's image abroad.

A defense lawyer, Yuri Schmidt, said it had been clear from the judges' summing up that the 41-year-old tycoon, once Russia's richest man, would be convicted.

They repeatedly referred to Khodorkovsky and Lebedev as the leaders of an "organized criminal group."

"In the hour that the judge has been talking, it is clear that the verdict is guilty ... (the conclusions of the judges are) completely following the conclusions of the prosecution," Schmidt told reporters during a court recess before the verdicts.

The billionaire and Lebedev face seven counts of fraud, embezzlement, tax evasion and theft that have their roots in alleged deals going back to the murky days of post-Soviet privatization in the mid-1990s.

The affair, widely seen as part of a Kremlin campaign to destroy Khodorkovsky for his political ambitions, has drawn criticism from the United States.

Khodorkovsky was arrested 17 months ago and has been held in prison. His YUKOS oil firm has since been crushed under the weight of a $27.5 billion back-tax bill.

"The Khodorkovsky trial has been the key issue of Russia's domestic and foreign policy for almost two years," Nezavisimaya Gazeta daily said.

The prosecution is seeking the maximum 10-year prison term for Khodorkovsky, while his defense wants him fully acquitted.

Outside the courtroom about 500 supporters gathered with banners calling for his release, one of which read: "Mikhail in jail is Russia's shame." But a small group of elderly people also called for him to be jailed.

Whatever the judges decide -- and their verdict and sentence may take up to three days to deliver -- prosecutors have vowed to bring new charges to keep Khodorkovsky behind bars.

Khodorkovsky and Lebedev -- a YUKOS minority shareholder facing almost identical charges -- were driven to the court in an armored mini-van with tinted windows and escorted in handcuffs into the courtroom by armed guards.

The two listened to their fate from a metal cage in the courtroom.

Khodorkovsky has branded the trial a farce.

Former top businessman Boris Berezovsky, whose opposition to Putin forced him into London exile, said the clumsy persecution of Khodorkovsky only increased his public appeal as a politician.

"Please demonstrate your principles," he said in an open letter published by his Kommersant daily, asking judges to acquit Khodorkovsky. "After all, it was Khodorkovsky who asked (Putin) in his recent appeal not to make him an opposition banner."

The fall of YUKOS and Khodorkovsky has shaken investor confidence in Russia, which has vast mineral and energy resources, and sensitized the stock market to any official moves against companies seen as less than loyal to the Kremlin.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said last month in Moscow that Washington was watching the trial closely for signs of what it showed about the rule of law in Putin's Russia.

U.S. officials, arguing that many Russian businessmen bent the rules in the early post-Soviet years, have spoken of a "selective application of the law" against Khodorkovsky.

In his state of the nation address on April 25, Putin emphasized the need to restore investor confidence in Russia, urging tax officials not to terrorize investors.

However, a statement by the prosecutor general's spokeswoman on Friday that unspecified fresh charges were to be brought against Khodorkovsky suggested Monday's verdict would not mean the end of the tycoon's legal woes.

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