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Judge Postpones New Sentence for Jailed Russian Tycoon Khodorkovsky

Former Yukos oil company chief executive officer Mikhail Khodorkovsky speaks with his lawyer Vadim Klyuvgant from inside the defendant’s glass cage in a Moscow courtroom on Nov. 2, 2010. Dmitry Kostyukov/AFP/Getty Images.

In the latest twist in the long-running story of a Russian oligarch-turned-prisoner, a judge in Moscow postponed the reading of a verdict on new charges levied against former oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky until Dec. 27. No official explanation was given for the delay.

Once the wealthiest man in Russia – owning major oil company OAO Yukos and controlling three percent of the world’s oil production – Khodorkovsky’s imprisonment has become a point of debate over the mixing of politics and justice under former Russian President Vladimir Putin. Although the Kremlin denies his jailing was politically motivated, Khodorkovsky’s supporters claim his arrest in 2003 and conviction in 2005 on charges of fraud and tax evasion was designed to squelch his political ambitions, punish him for criticizing Putin and eliminate his financial power.

Now, almost eight years into his first prison sentence, he is awaiting a verdict that will likely keep him and his co-defendant Platon Lebedev in jail for another seven. This time he is being charged with stealing $27 billion worth of oil Yukos produced from 1998 to 2003.

Angela Stent, the former Russia Officer at the National Intelligence Council, says this case could prove definitive in contemporary Russian society.

“I think it’s important because when President Medvedev first came into office, he promised to modernize the country and that Russia needed a rule of law, so many people believe this is an important symbol to see if he is committed to this,” she said. “Nobody believes the judge is ruling free of political pressure. The question is where the political pressure will come down – Medvedev or Putin.”

A number of Western politicians have publicly questioned Khodorkovsky’s imprisonment, with President Obama calling the charges against him “odd” and a group of former government officials from Britain, France, the U.S., and elsewhere publishing a letter in the Financial Times, urging the Kremlin to “end the persecution” of Khodorkovsky.

The case could wield an impact on the next round of presidential elections in Russia.

“As people look toward the 2012 election in Russia, there’s speculation about if Putin will run again or Medvedev, but the imprisonment is associated with Putin. If he got a lighter sentence, it might be an indication that Medvedev has more influence,” said Stent. “It’s all speculation, but the timing is tied up to a broader question of where Russia is heading and what’s going to happen with the next presidential election.”

If his sentence is extended, Khodorkovsky could be in jail until 2017.

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