A judge raced against time on Wednesday to wrap up the trial of Mikhail Khodorkovsky by the New Year and deliver a sentence that could keep Russia's most famous inmate in prison for several more years.
Judge Viktor Danilkin on Monday handed down a guilty verdict against Russia's former richest man and Kremlin critic in a ruling that was condemned as a show of selective justice by both the White House and several European states.
Khodorkovsky and his co-defendant Platon Lebedev have been in prison since 2003 after being arrested and then convicted on fraud charges that went a long way to defining the presidency of current Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.
The tycoon was scheduled for released next year and now faces the outcome of an embezzlement and money laundering trial that could keep him behind bars until 2017 and remove him from politics ahead of the approaching election season.
The trial has been watched around the world as a test case of the Kremlin's commitment to the court independence championed by Putin's presidential successor Dmitry Medvedev.
But the politically-sensitive case now faces the prospect of drawing to a close just as the country begins to toast the New Year -- Russia's biggest festival which also involves national holidays stretching until January 11.
Khodorkovsky's supporters have accused the court of purposefully timing the trial to deliver the verdict when most Russians' attention is elsewhere and newspapers take an extended break.
"The judge is in a hurry to deliver the sentence before the holidays," the Vedomosti business daily said in a headline.
Danilkin has been reading the hundreds of pages in the verdict at an impressive pace, often mumbling his way through words at a murmur that can hardly be deciphered by the throngs of reporters squeezed into the tiny court room.
The highly-technical sentence has seen the judge issue what the defence believes are a set of unsubstantiated and contradictory rulings that threaten to send the entire hearing for a retrial.
Danilkin on Tuesday ruled that even government officials who testified in Khodorkovsky's defence -- including former economy minister German Gref -- in fact supported the case of the prosecution.
Vedomosti speculated that this and Danilkin's mention of charges whose statute of limitation had expired meant that the court was intentionally sending the case for a retrial.
"These kinds of ploys are often used when a judge does not want to assume responsibility," Vedomosti wrote.
"Danilkin is bureaucrat, too -- even if he does wear a robe," said the paper. "Sitting between a rock and a hard place, he is willing to do anything not to have to issue a ruling" that sticks, the respected paper said.
The defence has accused Khodorkovsky's arch-nemesis Putin of essentially ordering the court to convict the former Yukos oil company founder.
Putin used a national television appearance this months to compare Khodorkovsky to the US financial fraudster Bernard Madoff and remark that a "thief must be in jail".
His aides later said the Russian strongman was only referring to the first court case but the defence charges that Putin' message had rung loud and clear.
The Russian foreign ministry also issued a stern statement Tuesday telling everyone in the West "to mind his own business" and stop criticising the government's handling of the trial.
"Attempts to exert pressure on the court are unacceptable," the foreign ministry said.