(Corrects quote in seventh paragraph of story originally published on Dec. 15.)
A Moscow court delayed the verdict phase of former Yukos Oil Co. billionaire Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s trial on oil-theft charges that may keep him behind bars until 2017, according to his lawyers.
The reading of the verdict, scheduled to start today, was postponed to Dec. 27, the Khamovniki District Court said in a statement posted on the courthouse door today. No explanation was given. Lawyers for Khodorkovsky weren’t given advance notice of the delay, said Vladimir Krasnov, a defense-team member.
“This is an attempt to avoid public attention,” Marina Khodorkovskaya, the ex-Yukos chief’s mother, said outside the courthouse. “Too many people are interested in this case. This is what they usually do.” The verdict will now be handed down during the holidays, when many foreign journalists leave Russia.
Khodorkovsky, once Russia’s richest man, and his former business partner, Platon Lebedev, face a total of 14 years in jail on charges of stealing about 219 million metric tons of oil from Yukos. The trial ended on Nov. 2. Reading the verdict may take up to two weeks. The two men are already serving eight-year jail terms for fraud. Khodorkovsky’s lawyers say time served will be deducted if he’s convicted in the current trial.
Yukos was bankrupted under $30 billion of tax claims and sold off in pieces, mostly to state oil company OAO Rosneft. Khodorkovsky has said his 2005 conviction was motivated by his opposition to Vladimir Putin, who was president at the time of his 2003 arrest. Putin said Khodorkovsky “deserved his punishment” in an interview with Kommersant in August.
An acquittal in the case, while unlikely, would attract new capital to Russia and drive stocks higher, investors said.
“If he were paroled or pardoned, the stock market would be ecstatic, although I think the market expects his sentence to be extended,” John Heisel, a Moscow-based sales trader at Citigroup Inc., said by phone.
The Micex Index surged 1.6 percent on Aug. 22, 2008, after a Russian media report, later retracted, that Khodorkovsky had been paroled.
“A political pardon for Khodorkovsky would be helpful from a market point of view,” Mattias Westman, chief executive officer of Prosperity Capital Management, the largest Russia- focused equity investor with $4.5 billion under management, said by phone. “It shouldn’t have much impact on Russia’s investment case, but it’s something investors keep bringing up with us.”
Khodorkovsky has ruled out the possibility of an acquittal and said he’s prepared to die in jail. The verdict will be “predictable,” he said in his closing statement during the trial. “No one believes that you can get an acquittal in the Yukos affair in a Moscow court.”
While prosecutors reduced the amount of oil Khodorkovsky is accused of stealing to about 219 million tons from 350 million tons, the assessed financial damage to the state hardly changed, said Maxim Dbar, a spokesman for the defense team.
Former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov, who testified as a defense witness in the trial, said Khodorkovsky and Lebedev have a “5 percent chance” of acquittal. “It won’t be a just decision; it will be another abuse by the authorities,” he said in a Dec. 13 interview.
The Khodorkovsky case is “one of the irritants that investors traditionally react to,” though it’s no longer a “primary concern,” said German Gref, CEO of OAO Sberbank, Russia’s largest lender.
“We have our work cut out for us to improve the investment climate,” Gref said. “This will produce entirely different results from the perspective of influencing investors’ opinions.” The Khodorkovsky case is “one episode, but we have systemic issues that aren’t resolved,” such as defense of property rights and improving the judiciary and law enforcement, he said.
Gref was economy minister when Khodorkovsky was arrested. He testified in the oil-theft trial that his responsibilities as minister didn’t include “inspections” of corporate finances. Still, he said he would have been informed if other officials had uncovered theft by executives at a company as big as Yukos.