MOSCOW — It has been called Russia's trial of the century, and if it keeps going at this rate, it just might last that long.
On May 16, judges began reading their verdict in the case of billionaire businessman Mikhail Khodorkovsky, whose trial on fraud and tax evasion charges has become a widely discussed barometer of Russia's commitment to private business and political freedoms.
The jurists have been reading ever since.
Rarely has an event so closely watched and politically charged been so boring. With 1,200 pages of evidence and testimony to be read word for word, getting to the conclusion -- will Khodorkovsky spend the next 10 years in prison or get a slap on the wrist? -- has become an exercise in endurance.
The overflow crowd that assembled for the beginning of the verdict has dwindled. As the three judges have pronounced page after page of condemning testimony and legal conclusions in hurried monotones, the lawyers and spectators have fought off sleep.
Khodorkovsky, the former chief executive of Yukos Oil Co., has been reading a book, or drawing cryptic signs and doodles in a notebook. His partner and co-defendant, Platon Lebedev, has favored crossword puzzles. On Monday, lead defense counsel Genrikh Padva dozed off a few times and spent part of the morning playing "Battleship" on a piece of paper with co-counsel Igor Mikheev. They could be heard whispering, "Popal!" ("Hit!") and "Potopil!" ("Sank!") above the drone of the judges.
"I can tell you, it's mind-numbing to sit there," Robert Amsterdam, a Canadian lawyer on Khodorkovsky's international defense team, said after Wednesday's session. "Today, they were stumbling, they were missing pages, and while this robotic reading continued, they really seemed to have lost their way.
"The atmosphere in the court is so surreal, and so shockingly funereal, it's like watching a human being being buried alive," Amsterdam said. "Because you know, that's really the intention, to bury him, to have a judgment that is so weighty and so heavy that people will simply assume by its weight and detail that it's correct."
The remarkable tedium is not a recent development.
In the opening months of the nearly yearlong trial, in which Khodorkovsky and Lebedev are accused of swindling their way into ownership of a government fertilizer company and siphoning billions of dollars of profit out of the reach of the tax authorities, the prosecution read out 393 volumes of evidence verbatim, sometimes reciting identical documents several times to prove they had been found in several locations.
"The first ones to fall asleep were the [security guards]," Igor Malakhov, who sat in on the trial for a pool of Western news organizations, said in a typical report Sept. 9. "Then the monotonous whisper of both the witness and the prosecutor put to sleep some of the journalists.... Even the judge started rubbing her neck fiercely, trying to wake up her blood vessels and make them bring some blood to the sleepy brain."
In Russia, it is routine to read verdicts that summarize the evidence in its entirety. But rarely has there been so lengthy a trial, with so much evidence, lawyers say.
"I can say that the reading of the verdict is unprecedented; it is the longest one in my practice," said Padva, the lead counsel. "My suggestion is that the judges wrote the verdict in a way that it could hide its essence in a vast number of words and pseudo-justifications."
As for the likely outcome, said John Pappalardo, a former U.S. attorney from Massachusetts who is also a member of the defense team, "I don't think there was any mystery about the verdict, even before the first word was read. There is going to be a guilty finding, there will be a substantial sentence."
On Wednesday, Lebedev handed a written statement to one of his lawyers. "All of the actions of the degrading and corrupt government officials have been aimed at the ... deceitful and uncompensated confiscation of property from the legal and rightful owners," it said in part.
Increasingly, Russian political analysts say, they believe the trial is an attempt to end any political future for Khodorkovsky, who was using what was once the largest private fortune in Russia to fund opposition parties and build grass-roots civil society structures before the de facto dismantling of his oil company by the tax authorities.
"The simple truth is that Khodorkovsky stays in prison while [Russian President Vladimir V.] Putin stays in the Kremlin," said Andrei Piontkovsky, director of the Center for Strategic Studies in Moscow.
Outside the courtroom, the show appears equally scripted. Hundreds of chanting Khodorkovsky supporters who demonstrated on the first day of the reading found the street walled off by metal detectors on day two. Only several dozen mainly elderly protesters accusing the oil tycoon of plundering the nation's wealth were able to make their way through.
Some lawyers now say the case could wrap up by early next week. But no one is sure, and some of the foreign attorneys have returned home briefly to their practices.
Amsterdam has remained.
"Often at the end of [a trial], ... you feel your arguments at least have been addressed," he said.
"This is the only time in my life where there has been absolutely no benefit for any of the work that any of the defense has done. No one has listened. No one has stopped to weigh any evidence or to explain why one piece of evidence is important and another isn't, why one witness is credible.
"So at this point, there's very little we can do for our clients but be there in solidarity with them."