Russian oil tycoon ruling postponed

A Moscow court has put off for a day a ruling on whether Mikhail Khodorkovsky, Russia's richest man and key owner of oil major YUKOS, could be freed on bail pending trial on tax evasion and fraud charges.

    The oil magnate arrives at the Moscow court

    After nearly 12 hours of deliberation, Moscow's Basmanny district court on Monday postponed a decision on Khodorkovsky's fate until 0900 GMT on Tuesday, the billionaire's lawyers said.

    The legal case against Khodorkovsky has shaken confidence among investors in Russia.

    Many observers see the legal assault on YUKOS as inspired by Kremlin hardliners, anxious to rein in the tycoon's political ambitions. They expect no decision to release Khodorkovsky on bail until at least the March 14 presidential election.

    President Vladimir Putin has said he plans to run for a second term and is heavily favoured to win the contest. He has pledged that businessmen who broke laws in chaotic sell-offs of state property during the 1990s must face the consequences.

    Khodorkovsky's lawyers said proceedings had stalled after the defence asked prosecutors, who want him to stay in jail for another three months so they can continue their investigation, to produce documents proving the probe was not over yet.

    Probe completed

     

    Earlier, prosecutors said they had completed the probe. They initially secured Khodorkovsky's detention on the grounds he could hamper the investigation if at large.

    Supporters of Khodorkovsky 
    protest against his arrest

    Khodorkovsky faces up to 10 years in prison.

    The tycoon's court appearance, mid-way through the afternoon, was the first time he had been seen outside his prison cell since he was detained at gunpoint on October 25.

    Wearing jeans and a sweatshirt, Khodorkovsky smiled and nodded at reporters as he was led into court in handcuffs. He was escorted by about 10 policemen, some with submachineguns.

    Khodorkovsky's pre-trial detention is due to expire on December 30.
     
    Similar YUKOS trial

    A similar bail hearing was scheduled for Tuesday for Platon Lebedev, a major YUKOS shareholder detained in July at the start of a long series of legal moves against the oil giant. 
     

    "This is an unprecedented farce in as much as no one's security is threatened"

    Vasily Aleksanyan
    Defence lawyer

    Defence lawyer Vasily Aleksanyan said, soon after the hearing opened, that the court was using the security of participants as a pretext for keeping the trial closed. The defence was considering whether to refuse to take part.

    "This is an unprecedented farce in as much as no one's security is threatened," he said. "This is unacceptable from any logical standpoint."
     
    The last hearing to seek Khodorkovsky's release on bail in November was mainly a closed sitting, though reporters briefly saw Khodorkovsky appear on a video link.

    Shares fluctuate

    YUKOS shares closed half a percent higher at $10.90 in dollar-denominated trade. On the rouble-based MICEX bourse they slipped to close 0.5% down at 318.18 roubles.

    Prosecutors have said they see no chance of an out-of-court settlement for Khodorkovsky, but it may take his lawyers a year or more to study his case.

    The conflict erupted in July with Lebedev's arrest. Within days of Khodorkovsky's arrest, prosecutors impounded a major stake in YUKOS belonging to Khodorkovsky and his allies.

    Tax authorities also said YUKOS may have underpaid $5 billion in taxes, while the Resources Ministry said the oil giant might lose some of its lucrative Siberian oil licences.

    SOURCE: Reuters


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