updated 4/27/2005 10:26:19 AM ET 2005-04-27T14:26:19

Russia postponed the verdict in jailed oil mogul Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s criminal trial Wednesday, a move possibly intended to avert an outcry as President Vladimir Putin heads into two high-profile international events.

The unexplained delay in Russia’s biggest post-Soviet era trial came hours before Putin was to begin the first visit of a Kremlin leader to Israel, where some fear the oil tycoon is being targeted in part because he is Jewish. Putin will also soon host dozens of Western leaders for ceremonies marking the Allied victory over the Nazis.

The historic trip to Israel is intended to enhance Putin’s image as a world leader despite accusations of regressing on commitments to democracy at home.

Khodorkovsky, the founder of Russia’s biggest oil company, is accused of tax evasion and fraud — charges many believe are aimed at keeping him locked up long enough to prevent him from influencing the 2008 presidential elections. He is widely expected to be convicted and serve time.

Many view the charges against the billionaire Khodorkovsky as part of a Kremlin-backed effort to curb his political clout and avenge his funding of opposition parties.

Though the verdict was expected Wednesday, hundreds of spectators and journalists who converged on the Moscow courthouse where he and two associates had been tried found only an unsigned notice taped on the glass door saying the verdict had been postponed until May 16.

The Interfax news agency reported that a court official had said that the chief judge in the case, Irina Kolesnikova, had not yet finished writing the sentence. When asked why the postponement took place, Yevgeny Baru, a defense lawyer, said: “It remains a secret.”

The postponement could be due to a combination of factors that could cause embarrassment to Putin. Besides his efforts to reassert a Russian role in the Middle East, he is also hosting about 50 world leaders in Moscow on May 9 for celebrations of the 60th anniversary of the Allies’ victory in Europe. Protests against Russia’s lack of commitment to democracy and an independent judiciary would spoil the triumphant moment.

“If there was a guilty verdict ... the holiday would be darkened,” said Vladimir Ryzhkov, a liberal lawmaker, reflecting a widespread view that the postponement was made for political reasons.

But the delay may not bode well for Khodorkovsky, since the international spotlight would have moved on by the next verdict date — giving the Kremlin a freer hand to punish him.

“On the one hand, it’s a signal there will be a harsh judgment,” Ryzhkov said. “On the other, there is an extra three weeks for consideration.”

Few have been betting on an acquittal. The politically charged trial and the dismantling of Yukos — once considered Russia’s most transparent company — dampened enthusiasm for investment in the country and helped push oil prices to record highs over supply fears.

The case is viewed as part of a Kremlin drive to neutralize Khodorkovsky’s political ambitions and cement state control over the strategically important oil sector.

What began with the tycoon being rousted at gunpoint from his private jet in October 2003 led to escalating tax claims against Yukos. Then in December, the company’s 1 million barrels-a-day Yuganskneftegaz unit was auctioned off to pay back a staggering $28 billion tax bill.

Khodorkovsky complained futilely from his jail cell of Kremlin interference; U.S. investors lost $6 billion as the relentless assault turned Russia’s biggest blue chip into a penny stock.

Nineteen months after Khodorkovsky’s arrest, once-thriving businesses are reeling as emboldened tax authorities conduct smaller back tax probes. Capital flight tripled last year to $7.9 billion as a result of uncertainty stoked by the Yukos case. The turmoil is blamed for cutting back gross domestic product growth at a time when oil prices — Russia’s main commodity — are at an all-time high.

“If (Putin) wants to give a statement to the West that in fact Russia is a place where anyone can count on a business climate, free Khodorkovsky,” said Robert Amsterdam, Khodorkovsky’s Toronto-based lawyer. “It is very clear the world is watching.”

While Putin has repeatedly described the case as a just investigation into a corrupt empire, the probe could have been launched against any of hundreds of businessmen in Russia’s cutthroat post-Soviet marketplace — rather than one financing opposition parties.

© 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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