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Moscow Court to Rule on Ex-Yukos Chief - 2003-12-22

A Moscow court is expected to decide Monday whether Russian oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky must remain in jail while awaiting trial for fraud and tax evasion.

Mr. Khodorkovsky, a billionaire who stepped down as the chairman of Yukos Oil after he was arrested two months ago, is being held under a detention order that expires on December 30. Prosecutors are asking for permission to keep him in jail for at least three more months.

Mr. Khodorkovsky was transported to the Basmanny Court building Monday in an armored vehicle surrounded by armed guards.

No trial date has been set for Mr. Khodorkovsky, but the eventual case is likely to be prolonged and complicated. Most analysts expect the defendant will not be released on bail until after Russia's presidential election in March.

President Vladimir Putin, who is heavily favored to win a second term on March 14, says he has not been involved in the Khodorkovsky case directly. However, he says businessmen who violated Russian laws during the turbulent decade that followed the break-up of the Soviet Union must face the consequences.

No details of the case have been disclosed, but prosecutors say they intend to show that Mr. Khodorkovsky, while in command of Yukos, evaded taxes and committed fraud, forgery, embezzlement and other offenses. He is said to face up to 10 years in prison.

His supporters say the Kremlin targeted the 40-year-old executive for prosecution because he provided financial backing for opposition political parties, and to smother his political ambitions.

Mr. Khodorkovsky has been in custody since October 25, when Russian special forces boarded his private plane and seized him in the city of Novosibirsk.