MOSCOW – The assistant to the judge who convicted oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky said Monday the judge did not write the verdict and read it against his will in the Moscow courtroom.
The assistant's claim, laid out in detail in a lengthy interview, provides a rare look inside Russia's judicial system, where judges are susceptible to political pressure.
Judge Viktor Danilkin found Khodorkovsky guilty in December of stealing oil from his own oil company and extended his prison term through 2017.
The judge's assistant, Natalya Vasilyeva, who is also the spokeswoman for the court, said the verdict was imposed upon the judge when it became clear that his own ruling would not please the top Russian officials behind the politically driven case.
"Danilkin began to write the verdict. I suspect that what was in that verdict did not suit his higher ups, and therefore he received another verdict, which he had to read," Vasilyeva said in an interview broadcast on the cable television channel Dozhd and printed in the online news portal Gazeta.ru.
Danilkin issued a brief statement Monday saying he was "convinced that the assertion by Natalya Vasilyeva was nothing more than slander."
Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has been seen as the driving force behind the unrelenting legal attack on Khodorkovsky, who has been imprisoned since 2003. Shortly before the verdict was announced, Putin called Khodorkovsky a thief and said he should stay in prison.
Vasilyeva's claim appeared to be a public acknowledgment of what many observers of the trial had already assumed.
During the 20-month trial, Danilkin had given the impression that he was seriously considering the merits of the case and often joined the defense lawyers and audience in laughing at the prosecutors' gaffes. He treated Khodorkovsky with respect and allowed current and former government officials to testify in his defense.
But when he began reading the verdict — a summary of the trial that took him four days to get through — it was immediately clear that whatever hopes there had been for leniency were gone. He rarely raised his eyes while speed reading through the hundreds of pages.
Khodorkovsky's mother put it bluntly, saying: "They must have tortured him to get him to say what he did."
The defense lawyers said much of the verdict was copied from the indictment and the prosecutors' final arguments. "The judge is only the nominal author of that verdict," lead defense lawyer Vadim Klyuvgant said at the time.
The defense appealed the ruling to the Moscow City Court, which oversees district courts in the city, including the one where Danilkin presides.
But it was the Moscow City Court that ultimately wrote the Khodorkovsky verdict after issuing directives throughout the trial, according to Danilkin's assistant. Vasilyeva recalled overhearing some of the judge's telephone conversations and said he was visibly disturbed by some of the instructions he received.
The crisis came when Danilkin was called over to the Moscow City Court on Dec. 25, the Saturday before he was to begin reading the verdict, to meet an "important person" and receive a "clear explanation" of what his ruling should say, Vasilyeva said.
She said the judge returned from that meeting looking ill. "He was tense, really tense," she said.
Once cheerful and approachable, Danilkin has withdrawn and even now appears deeply depressed, his assistant said.
Moscow City Court spokeswoman Anna Usachyova denied that the verdict was written by anyone but Danilkin. "I am confident that Natalya Vasilyeva will take back her words," she said.
Vasilyeva, who said in the interview that she expected to be fired, could not be reached. The court said she was on vacation for the next month.
She explained her decision to go public by saying she had once hoped to become a judge, but no longer had any interest in a judicial career after seeing how Russian courts work from the inside. "The fairy tale that judges answer only to the law and to no one else has faded away," she said.