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Last Updated: Wednesday, 1 June, 2005, 01:34 GMT 02:34 UK
Yukos trial raises new questions
By Artyom Liss
BBC News, Moscow

Pro-Khodorkovsky crowds near the court
Khodorkovsky's supporters were kept some distance from the court

After 12 days of rumours, false alarms and even sweepstakes, the fate of Mikhail Khodorkovsky and his business partner Platon Lebedev is finally clear.

Both men have been sentenced to nine years behind bars - almost the maximum penalty possible under Russian law.

As Judge Irina Kolesnikova finally completed the task of reading out what some call Russia's longest verdict ever, she asked the former tycoons: "Do you understand your sentences?"

"Yes," replied Mikhail Khodorkovsky, "and I also understand that this is a monument to the Russian injustice".

News of the sentence spread quickly.

Seconds later, supporters of the billionaire could be heard chanting: "Shame! Shame! Freedom! Freedom!"

There was no chance their voices could reach Khodorkovsky or Lebedev in their metal cage.

Hundreds of police officers, some with dogs on leashes, stood between the protesters and the court house.

Fair and unfair

The police remained silent, with only the occasional radio exchange causing the odd disturbance in their ranks.

To law student and courier Sergey - a Khodorkovsky supporter - these are all signs of a prison camp constructed in the centre of Moscow.

US congressman Tom Lantos
Congressman Lantos condemned the "kangaroo court"
"They never even looked at the real evidence! I'm sure Khodorkovsky and Lebedev did nothing wrong, and even if they did, nobody was squeaky clean in the mid-1990s - why single them out?" he asked, full of indignation.

Just next to this pro-Khodorkovsky rally, paramedics - who have been brought in as part of the security operation - are also busy discussing the sentence.

"He stole our country's wealth; he did not want to pay taxes - so I say he robbed me! The sentence is fair. But I'm not sure that the hearings were. Or that this joke of a police operation is," sighs Nikolai, a nurse and ambulance driver.

For many in Russia, Nikolai's views are not at all a sign of a split personality.

Unpopular as the oligarchs are, the process of jailing them should be seen be fair, insist some opponents of the former tycoons.

Record-breaking

There was not a single element to this trial which was without controversy.

Even when all was done and dusted, and the judges set to pronouncing the verdict, came an unexpected national record.

"We are ready to register this as the longest sentence ever," said head of the Russian record club Victor Ovsyannikov.

He promised to submit all the necessary paperwork to the Guinness book of records.
Mikhail Khodorkovsky
Some people feel ambivalence towards Khodorkovsky's trial

To him, this could be just a curious twist of the Russian legal system.

But Mikhail Khodorkovsky's supporters are certain that everything was not so simple.

"They've been dragging this out to kill the media attention," said the Canadian lawyer Robert Amsterdam.

And the US congressman Tom Lantos called what he saw in Moscow's Kalanchevskaya Street "a kangaroo court".

"It seems this political trial has come to a shameful conclusion," he fumed outside the court house.

But supporters of the Russian authorities are still calling for calm.

"I can only express my deepest sympathy to the judges who have to read out so much paperwork," said speaker of the Russian parliament Boris Gryzlov.

And political scientist Iossif Diskin - who is rumoured to be very close to the Kremlin - took this explanation a step further.

"The judges understand what they are doing. This is all proper procedure, there is a lot of evidence, and nobody wants to make a mistake," he insisted shortly before the sentence was announced.

Pivotal point

What Judge Kolesnikova herself thinks about the verdict, nobody will ever know.

But it has already set a whole string of new legal precedents for Russia.

Never before has a court here sanctioned searches in a lawyer's office.

And never before have judges taken a whole 12 days - 16, if you factor in the weekends - to read out a verdict.

The purely legal consequences of these hearing might soon be forgotten: after all, this was a trial like no other.

The really big question is whether this will, as some say, be a pivotal point for the Russian judiciary.

In a few months, the Moscow city court will consider Khodorkovsky's appeal.

This is when first indications of an answer might come out.




BBC NEWS: VIDEO AND AUDIO
The background to the Mikhail Khodorkovsky case



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