MOSCOW – The year is 2008 and, according to a joke making the rounds in Moscow, the judge is reading the last page of the Mikhail Khodorkovsky (search) verdict. Wait, says a lawyer, a couple of points weren't clear — and the judge says, "All right, I'll start over."
As the reading of the verdict lumbered through its 10th day Friday, the trial was increasingly becoming fodder for sour jests that express dismay with Russia's legal system and suspicion that the case against the tycoon is rooted in political revenge.
Both figure in the joke about the repeated reading: 2008 is when the next presidential election is to be held, and many observers believe the Kremlin wants to keep Khodorkovsky, who used his oil wealth to fund opposition parties, out of action until the voting is over.
Black humor about the droning days of reading has even cropped up in an unexpected place — the government newspaper Rossiiskaya Gazeta, which ran a headline proclaiming: "Khodorkovsky sentenced to lifetime reading of his verdict."
That was a week ago, when tedium was only beginning to set in.
Khodorkovsky's lawyers and supporters say the drawn-out reading isn't a scrupulous summation of the complex case's evidence and arguments, but a strategy to exhaust the public's interest.
If deliberate, it's worked.
On the first day or two of the reading of the verdict, television crews jostled outside the courthouse to seek sound bites from lawyers, and journalists clamored to get on the list for the few media seats in the cramped courtroom.
The throngs dissolved thereafter, with only a couple of TV crews outside on some days — though the media presence perked up Friday with speculation the end was near. Newspaper coverage has shuffled into the inside pages, while the front pages address new scandals such as the power outage that hit much of Moscow on Wednesday.
One wag on a joke-collecting Web site saw sinister meaning in the blackout: "The FSB went overboard in trying to divert attention from Khodorkovsky," the contributor said, referring to the Soviet KGB's main successor agency.
The reading of the verdict is no laughing matter for attorneys defending the 41-year-old Khodorkovsky and business partner Platon Lebedev (search), but it has prompted some comically exaggerated language from them.
They were especially irritated by the appearance this week of dozens of pieces of road-paving equipment outside the courthouse, which they said was work aimed at keeping demonstrators supporting Khodorkovsky at a distance.
"Each day is something different. Today it happens to be the roads. God only knows what they'll do to us tomorrow — a plague of locusts — I'm not really sure," lawyer Robert Amsterdam fumed.
As the process dragged on and observers started grasping for straws of amusement, they took notice of a billboard across the street from the courthouse trumpeting the anniversary of a sparkling wine company.
"10 Years," it crows in bright gold letters against a backdrop of fireworks — exactly the sentence that prosecutors are seeking for Khodorkovsky.