Protesters Cry Shame, but Verdict No Surprise

The courtroom was stuffy and tense. In the public galleries a few dozen journalists, foreign diplomats, and the suspects’ relatives and friends were trying to catch their breath after hours of pushing to squeeze through the choking human barricade created by courthouse guards. A reporter was taking care of his bleeding hand, scratched in the jamb of the doorway. Kalashnikov-wielding police, sweat running from under their fur hats, stared angrily at the windows, unable to mute hundreds of voices outside screaming: “Freedom! Freedom! Freedom!” Mikhail Khodorkovsky, once the richest man in Russia, and his partner, Platon Lebedev, waved and smiled through the glass walls of their cage at every person they recognized in the audience.

Khodorkovsky’s father, Boris, and his mother, Maria, waved to their son. Maria had traveled thousands of miles to have short visits with Mikhail in the Siberian prison in Chita after he received an eight-year sentence on charges of fraud and tax evasion in 2004. Today, six years later, their son was about to hear his sentence on fresh charges. “My son’s fate is in Putin’s hands,” Boris Khodorkovsky said before the verdict. “They would like to keep him in jail because they fear too much to look into his eyes.”

The door to the judge’s chambers, topped with the Russian double-headed eagle crest, opened a tiny bit and then closed tight again. The courtroom instantly grew silent. The longest, the most notorious, and by far the most complicated trial in Russia’s recent history was about to end.

Even after 22 months of hearings, not many in Russia understood how prosecutors could accuse the former tycoons of stealing billions of dollars of oil from their own company. Even in a country where the majority has no respect for the oligarchs, only 13 percent believed the charges, according to an October poll by the Moscow-based Levada Center. In his closing testimony in this courtroom a few weeks ago, Khodorkovsky proclaimed his case a test for Russia’s justice system: “There is much more than just the fates of two people in your hands," Khodorkovsky said. "Right here and right now, the fate of every citizen of our country is being decided."

“All rise for the judge!” Judge Viktor Danilkin looked tired. In the long months of listening to monotonous accusations, while being called by the press the Kremlin’s puppet, the judge grew famous for his sad looks. The audience stood up and listened hard. The protesters yelling outside could be heard in the quiet courtroom: “Russia without Putin! Russia without Putin!” Danilkin began to read the verdict. His voice, a mere whisper, could hardly be heard, as the protesters continued to chant: “Freedom! Shame!” Journalists shifted forward trying not to miss the most crucial part, when the judge pronounced the defendants guilty of embezzlement. Seemingly relaxed and indifferent to the scene before him—a judge sentencing him to years more in prison while hundreds shouted for his freedom—Khodorkovsky frowned and looked down. Even though he’d said that he expected to spend the rest of his life in jail, it was clear that he’d harbored a tiny hope—now vanished.

During a smoking break, Khodorkovsky’s lawyer, Yuri Schmidt, said that the trial was “simply a show, the same as the political thaw in Russia”—and that hundreds of pages of the verdict that Danilkin tried to gallop through Monday were “identical to the accusation we heard from the prosecutors—he even did not bother to make his own corrections.” The lawyer added that his client “never had any illusions about his verdict.” In the meantime, police in masks were busy rounding up dozens of participants in the unauthorized “Waiting for Justice” protest on the street outside the courtroom, bundling demonstrators into waiting vans.

Hours passed by, and the judge continued to read the justifications for the verdict. Every wrong move in the audience was immediately punished: “Leave the court, now!” a court officer commanded a young lady trying to photograph the scene. Khodorkovsky’s wife, Inna, and his daughter, Anastasia, were removed from the courtroom for talking. Lebedev seemed to lose interest, and began to read a thick novel. And Khodorkovsky flashed a few more sad smiles at his lawyers.