MOSCOW — The second trial of jailed billionaire oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky is set to come to a close in Russia on Wednesday, when Judge Viktor Danilkin will start delivering his verdict under the close watch of the world community.
The reading of the verdict is scheduled to last several days, with observers theorizing that the sentence will not be unveiled until the Western world is well preoccupied with Christmas festivities.
Observers expect Danilkin to issue a new multi-year sentence against Khodorkovsky, the former head of the now defunct Yukos oil company and one-time richest Russian who has since become the country's most prominent inmate.
The 47-year-old counts among Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's most fierce critics. The international community, including officials from the United States and Germany, has repeatedly criticized the year-and-a-half proceeding as a political show trial with no legal basis.
Former Russian officials have also testified on Khodorkovsky's behalf that the allegations were not comprehensible.
But with Khodorkovsky's current jail sentence due to expire in 2011 — when Russia will be poised for parliamentary and presidential elections — observers say it is likely that the government wants to continue keeping the critic on ice.
He has repeatedly asserted his innocence, saying that all the charges are fictitious. His lawyer has said that he will appeal to the European Court of Human Rights if he is found guilty yet again.
Khodorkovsky argues that the judicial proceedings are Putin's revenge for the fact that the Yukos leader supported the opposition, while other oligarchs backed the government.
Khodorkovsky has said that he does not expect to be freed as long as Putin is in power and would continue to fight for justice in prison until he died.
Putin, who was president at the time of Khodorkovsky's arrest, has vehemently rejected the allegation, defending the second trial as lawful.
The oligarch had first been arrested aboard his private jet in 2003. A Moscow court then sentenced him and his business partner, Platon Lebedev, to eight years in prison for tax evasion.
In March 2009, a second trial was launched against Khodorkovsky and Lebedev, this time on charges that they had stolen 218 million tons of oil — an allegation that many observers have dismissed as absurd and unfeasible.
But prosecutors argued that the state should be compensated the equivalent of just under 27 billion dollars. If they have their way, Khodorkovsky would additionally remain in prison until at least 2017.
Putin has recently also accused Khodorkovsky of being involved in contract killings, saying that former Yukos managers have blood on their hands and indicating that freedom for the oligarch is unlikely.
"I am well aware that an acquittal in a Moscow court is simply not possible," Khodorkovsky said in his closing words.