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Mikhail Khodorkovsky: Judges Hammer Defense's Case

Judges in the trial of Mikhail Khodorkovsky and Platon Lebedev inched toward the end of their verdict Monday. But as tension mounted in expectation that the sentences would finally be pronounced, the judges switched their focus to the defense's arguments and adjourned for another day.

One by one, Chief Judge Irina Kolesnikova rattled off her reasons for discarding the defense's arguments, from challenges over tax fraud charges to claims that a raid on defense lawyer Anton Drel's office was illegal.

"They're clearing the record," Toronto-based defense lawyer Robert Amsterdam said. "They're trying to make sure there will not be any evidence left for an appeal."

The judges' reading of the verdict had appeared to be drawing to a close as they completed their analysis of the evidence presented against Khodorkovsky, Lebedev and the third defendant in the trial, Andrei Krainov, the former head of the Apatit fertilizer plant.

Verdicts in the Russian court system are generally read in three stages: first a summation of the charges, then a consideration of the evidence for each charge, and finally a formal reading of the sentence.

But even after 11 days of reading the verdict, it remained unclear exactly when the sentences would be pronounced. Defense lawyers hedged their bets Monday, saying the trial could end Tuesday, Wednesday or possibly later in the week. The prosecutor has demanded sentences of 10 years in prison for Khodorkovsky and Lebedev.

The sentencing is the only uncertainty left in the trial of two of the country's richest men, which has been viewed as part of a drive toward greater Kremlin dominance over the economy and politics. The judges have already said they found the Menatep owners have committed crimes on all of the charges.

But despite its significance, the trial has been marked by long periods of tedium and the monotone reading by the trio of judges, who alternate in reciting the verdict.

As the slowest-reading judge completed her analysis of the evidence against Krainov in the day's third session, onlookers snickered at a loud snore heard across the courtroom. Another time, the guard standing in front of the defendants' cage appeared to doze off as he swayed on his feet.

Khodorkovsky and Lebedev, meanwhile, continued their doodling and rarely looked up.

After the final charge of the case was read out, Kolesnikova picked up the pace in the day's fourth session. But instead of moving onto sentencing, as many expected, she began rejecting the defense team's arguments and countermotions.

Kolsenikova rejected a defense motion to suppress evidence gathered from an October 2003 raid on the offices of Khodorkovsky lawyer Anton Drel.

The defense team claimed it should not be considered, as it contravened a basic right that shields defense lawyers from investigation.

At the time of the raid, Drel was acting as defense lawyer to Lebedev, but he had been working as a corporate lawyer for Khodorkovsky's holding company Group Menatep long before that.

Kolesnikova ruled the raid was legal because it had targeted the office building and not Drel specifically.

"They appear to have approved the ransacking of Drel's office," Amsterdam told reporters after the court session ended. "Their lack of sensitivity to this fundamental right is an extremely dangerous step down the road of authoritarianism.

"It now appears that the lawyers' ... protection is significantly weaker in Russia today as a result of this ruling. This is a tragedy," Amsterdam said. "This is not a good time for one of the most basic and fundamental rights to be watered down."

Kolsenikova also threw out defense testimony on tax practices given by expert witnesses from economic institutes.

She said the evidence could not be considered partly because the experts held no official positions in the government tax service.

She rejected defense evidence from officials in Lesnoi on the legality of payments made through the town's tax haven schemes, saying that prosecutors had since opened criminal investigations into the officials involved.

Kolesnikova also rejected the defense's argument on one fraud charge that some taxes had been paid off with promissory notes, saying that non-cash tax payments were in contravention of the law at the time.

She also dismissed testimony purporting to show Lebedev's good faith in voluntarily repaying cash owed to depositors and to the state after Bank Menatep went belly-up in the August 1998 financial crisis.

Kolesnikova said the court would take this into account, but added it did not influence any of the charges against him.

As she rattled off her dismissal of the defense arguments, Khodorkovsky often shook his head in apparent disbelief.

(The Moscow Times 31.v.05)

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