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Judge Postpones Expected Verdict in Khodorkovsky Trial

Jailed former Yukos chief executive Mikhail Khodorkovsky will have to wait longer to learn his fate, as the expected verdict in his fraud and corruption trial has been delayed. No immediate reason was given for the change of plans, which also affects co-defendant Platon Lebedev.

Reporters and witnesses arriving at Moscow's Meshchansky District Court for the expected verdict were surprised by a delay notice taped on the front door of the court house.

The notice said the reading of the verdict has been postponed by nearly three weeks, until May 16. It provided no other details. Mr. Khodorkovsky's lawyer, Genrikh Padva, said he is not surprised by the abrupt change of plans.

Mr. Padva told Russian television he thinks the judges might not have had enough time to write what is expected to be a lengthy ruling.

Others suggested the reported illness of one of the judges in the trial could be behind the delay. But liberal lawmaker, Irina Khakamada, is far more skeptical.

Speaking on Russia's Echo Moscow radio, Ms. Khakamada said she does not believe the situation is connected with technical problems. As she put it, "Maybe there is some plotting and the final decision has not yet been made."

The deputy chairman of Russia's opposition Yabloko Party, Sergei Mitrokhin, said he believes the reading of the verdict was delayed to prevent political turmoil ahead of upcoming festivities in Moscow on May 9, marking the anniversary end of World War II in Europe. About 50 world leaders, including President Bush, are expected to attend the events.

Prosecutors have asked the court to find Mr. Khodorkovsky and Mr. Lebedev guilty and to sentence each of them to 10 years in prison on multiple charges of tax evasion and fraud.

Lawyers for both men say they do not expect things to end there. In earlier comments to reporters, the lawyers said they expect new charges will be brought against both Mr. Khodorkovsky and Mr. Lebedev.

Last December, prosecutors opened a money- aundering case against Mr. Khodorkovsky - a charge that carries another potential 10-year sentence, if he is convicted. He has denied all charges raised in the 10-month trial as pure fabrication.

Once Russia's richest man, Mr. Khodorkovsky has seen his personal wealth plummet and his company, Yukos, dismantled and auctioned off. Meanwhile, investor confidence in Russia has hit new lows and capital flight of foreign investment is estimated at nearly $8 billion in the last year alone, because of the uncertainty.

Russian President Vladimir Putin raised eyebrows this week, taking rare aim at the tax police in his annual state-of-the-nation address. Mr. Putin said the tax police have no right to terrorize Russian business.

But the Director of Moscow's Institute for Globalization Studies, Mikhail Delyagin, tells VOA the tax police would not carry out such actions without the highest orders.

Mr. Delyagin says the state of any large nation, such as Russia, is linked, in part, to the state of its leader. And, in this case, Mr. Delyagin says the pressure brought by tax police would not have been possible, "had it not been sanctioned by the government."

Many people believe the case against Mr. Khodorkovsky is politically motivated retaliation for his open financing of opposition political parties.

Visiting Moscow last week, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said the United States would be watching the verdict to see what is says about the state of democracy in Russia.