MOSCOW — When journalists showed up to hear the judge read the long-awaited verdict in the case of jailed oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, they found a note on the courthouse door. The reading of the verdict, it said, would be postponed. It was still early in the morning, though, and the note -- unsigned and typewritten -- seemed like it could easily be fake. This was, after all, the denouement of a highly politicized, hyper-publicized trial, both in Russia and abroad. So one of the puzzled journalists called Khodorkovsky's lawyer, Genrikh Padva, who had not yet heard of the note's existence. "I might have expected this," he said. "But no one warned me about it ahead of time."
By the time Padva got to the courthouse, there was a scrum of reporters and elderly Khodorkovsky supporters by the door. They swarmed him, demanding an explanation. "Apparently the court just didn't have enough time to write the verdict," the lawyer explained. He also had not gotten an official explanation (just an official version of the note on the door) but Padva and the rest of the legal team tried to play it down. This happens all the time, they said. Only Khodorkovsky's father, Boris, had a more probing -- and Russian -- explanation: After the delay, he said, "a lot fewer people will come" for the actual verdict.
The date was April 27, 2005.
Five and a half years later, on December 15, journalists awaited another Khodorkovsky verdict; the scene was almost identical, with a few names and details changed around. It was a different Moscow courthouse and a different case in question, this one brought in 2007 when Khodorkovsky and his partner Platon Lebedev were just about to be up for parole. The new charges alleged that the two stole all the oil their company Yukos ever produced and then laundered the ill-begotten proceeds. (The first case was that they neglected to pay taxes on this laundered oil money. The apparent contradiction between these two cases has yet to be explained.)
Just as in 2005, a mass of journalists and supporters arrived early in the morning (this one sub-zero) to get seats in the courtroom. And once again, they found an unsigned, typewritten note taped to the courtroom door, informing them that the verdict would now be read on Dec. 27, when most of them -- and most of the people watching and reading about the case abroad -- would be away on winter vacation. And, as before, the lead lawyer (now Vadim Klyuvgant), expressed a weary frustration: "I just heard there's a piece of paper hanging there, with no explanation, not even to me," he said in a phone conversation on his way to court, "This is not the most unexpected scenario."
There was no explanation from the court this time, either, and Khodorkovsky's legal team attributed the delay, once again, to a procrastinating judge. "The judge didn't have enough time to finish writing the decision," Klyuvgant said later. "What can I say?" He and his team refused to speculate on just why a judge who had six weeks to prepare a decision appears more like a stressed college sophomore who sends a twelfth-hour pleading email to his professor about computer problems. "I'm an attorney! Stop asking me provocative questions!" Klyuvgant barked when pressed.
This left the explanation, once again, to Khodorkovsky's parents. This time, it was his mother, Marina, who broke it down. "This was all done on purpose," she told reporters. "Many journalists and politicians planned to come to court. And when you move everything close to New Year's, everyone will be gone."
She has a point. A verdict in a Russian court is not a quick, decisive paragraph, but a lengthy rehashing of the entire trial, as well as a delivery of the sentencing. The ruling is not clear until the end, though delivering a verdict can take weeks of deadly, monotonous reading from the bench. (At a press conference yesterday, Klyuvgant noted that the judge, Viktor Danilkin, is "a professional." That is, he reads really, really fast, "almost like a tongue-twister.") Given that the decision in this case -- as in the first one -- has long ago been decided in the Kremlin rather than within the courthouse walls, it's strange that Danilkin would need extra time to finish writing a pre-decided decision.
What Danilkin really needs is time for the people who are interested in reporting and reading about his pre-fab verdict to be less interested, like when they are skiing in the Alps or sunbathing in Thailand or getting chronically drunk over the holidays. (When the first verdict was postponed, the Kremlin needed time to host foreign leaders like George W. Bush for the 60th anniversary of the victory over Nazi Germany. Why give the foreigners cause to complain on such a sacred day?) People are already starting to leave Moscow for the winter break, and many of them won't return until the country gets back to full-time mode on January 10. By then, they'll come back to find that nothing's changed -- that Khodorkovsky is, as always, guilty in perpetuity. And if there was any question on that matter, there are rumors circulating that there is a third set of charges being prepared.
If any more proof were needed that justice and politics in Russia is all form and no content, it came in today's statement from the court's spokeswoman, Natalia Vasilieva. Someone asked her for an explanation and, unintentionally echoing Duma speaker Boris Gryzlov's infamous quote that the Russian parliament "is not a place for discussion," Vasilieva answered with a familiar herniation of the state's disdainful subconscious. "The court does not explain itself," she said outside the courthouse, and quickly ducked back inside.