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Prosecutor Turns Russia's Trial of Century Into a Yawner

By Peter Baker
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, August 19, 2004; Page A18

MOSCOW -- The trial began one recent morning as it has every day. The two billionaires were escorted into the courtroom cage where defendants sit on hard benches. The prosecutor, wearing a blue military-style uniform as is customary, swept in, three stars on his shoulder. The three judges, all young women in black robes, slid into their leather seats.

The prosecutor called for volumes 14 through 18 of the evidence, flipped open the first of the binders and began reading aloud. And reading. And reading.

Even tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, in the defendant's cage, has not shown much interest in the trial. (Mikhail Metzel -- AP)

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Every day for the past month it has been the same. In a monotone recitation, prosecutor Dmitri Shokhin reads to the court from the thousands of documents -- financial statements, legal papers, newspaper articles -- that make up the case against oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky and his partner Platon Lebedev.

Shokhin offers no commentary, no explanation of what all the arcane material might mean. He simply reads, and everyone else tries to fight off sleep. Russia's trial of the century so far has proved to be more of a trial of the somnolent.

Defense attorneys have drifted off; friends of the defendants have put their heads down on the bench in front of them. The judges often stare off blankly into the distance and yawn. One day a guard slept so deeply that his snoring woke everyone else up.

Such is Russian justice. The emphasis is not on stirring courtroom rhetoric or clever cross-examination. It's on paperwork, the sheer bulk of it, the more the better. In this case, prosecutors have collected 227 binders of documents to support fraud and tax evasion charges against Khodorkovsky and another 167 binders concerning similar allegations against Lebedev.

Reporters by and large have stopped attending. And thus the trial of Russia's richest man, culminating a grand political struggle between Khodorkovsky and President Vladimir Putin, a trial that could help determine the future of Russian capitalism, has dropped off the Moscow radar screen.

"All the presented materials prove only one thing: that the prosecutors worked a lot but uselessly," Vladimir Krasnov, an attorney for Lebedev, told reporters outside the courtroom.

One of Khodorkovsky's partners brought his own entertainment one recent day. Vasily Shakhnovsky powered up a laptop computer, pulled out a small earpiece and popped in a bootleg DVD copy of Michael Moore's "Fahrenheit 9/11." As the prosecutor began the day's droning, the image of U.S. Attorney General John D. Ashcroft flashed across Shakhnovsky's screen.

Every once in a while, the defense has tried to bring the tedium to a merciful end.

"Considering that neither the court nor our side is interested in making the trial go on longer than necessary, may I suggest there is no need to listen to materials we all know," one of Khodorkovsky's attorneys, Genrikh Padva, implored the judges one day recently.

The presiding judge said it was up to the prosecutor.

Shokhin, smiling, stood up and declared that he was confused. "Sometimes the defense criticizes me for not providing full information and now it's too much," he said sarcastically.

And then he began reading again.

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