Russia to judge tycoon amid global scrutiny

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A court will Wednesday begin announcing the verdict in the second trial of Russia's ex-richest man Mikhail Khodorkovsky, a case watched globally as a critical moment in its post-Soviet history.

Khodorkovsky, already serving an eight-year sentence for tax evasion, is on trial on new charges of money laundering and embezzlement that could see the head of the now defunct Yukos oil giant receive another heavy jail term.

Prosecutors have asked for a new 14-year sentence to run simultaneously with the current eight-year jail term so that Khodorkovsky and his co-accused Platon Lebedev, if convicted, would remain behind bars until 2017.

Accusations that his jailing was a political stitch-up masterminded by Vladimir Putin have led Western capitals to view the new trial as a test for Russia's commitment to democracy under new President Dmitry Medvedev.

"Some are expecting a miracle like an acquittal or an amnesty. But we should be skeptical about the state of our judicial system," said pro-Kremlin political analyst Gleb Pavlovsky of the Fund for Effective Policy.

"Certain interest groups put pressure on the court and in this case it is hard for the judge to preserve independence," he told AFP.

In the most controversial legal action of post-Soviet Russia, Khodorkovsky is seen by supporters as a martyr punished for daring to defy president-turned Prime Minister Putin and by officials as a corrupt tycoon who broke the law.

"I am not exaggerating if I say that millions of eyes in the entire country and the world are following this trial," Khodorkovsky said last month in a dramatic final address to the court before it adjourned for the verdict.

"Everyone understands that your verdict -- whatever it is -- will form a part of Russian history," he told judge Viktor Danilkin, who may take several days to read out his judgement.

France's former foreign minister Bernard Kouchner, British ex-foreign minister David Miliband and European and US lawmakers Tuesday said the consensus was that "their ongoing persecution is unjust and not truly motivated by law.

"This has shaken confidence in the Russian legal system and in your strong will to uphold the Russian constitution," they said in a letter to Medvedev published in the Financial Times.

Khodorkovsky and Lebedev are accused of embezzling 218 million metric tons of oil worth over 26 billion dollars -- an amount the defense says is absurd as it is equivalent to Yukos' total oil production from 1998 to 2003.

Witnesses called included former economy minister German Gref, now the head of Russia's largest bank, and Trade and Industry Minister Viktor Khristenko, whose appearances according to the defence exposed weakness in the charges.

Putin in September even accused Khodorkovsky of having ordered contract killings, allegations that have never even been raised in court, saying "his hands are stained in blood."

For Khodorkosky's supporters, Putin and right-hand-man Igor Sechin are the dual nemeses of the fallen tycoon, ordering his 2003 arrest as revenge for financing opposition parties at a critical moment for the authorities.

They had hoped for a change in course when Medvedev, a trained lawyer who promised to end legal nihilism in Russia, came to power in 2008. So far however he has merely indicated justice must take its course.

In his statement final address to the court, Khodorkovsky said he did not want to die in jail but also warned that an acquittal verdict on the Yukos affair was "impossible in a Moscow court".

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