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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Khodorkovsky, Lebedev Might Have a Joint Trial

The same judge will preside over the trials of jailed billionaires Mikhail Khodorkovsky and Platon Lebedev, increasing the likelihood that their request to be tried together will be granted, Khodorkovsky's lawyer, Anton Drel, said Friday.

Drel said the date for the trial of Khodorkovsky, who has been imprisoned since October on charges of fraud and tax evasion, will be set May 28. The trial of Lebedev, in jail on similar charges since July, convened Thursday, but was quickly postponed till May 28.

"The judge will be [Irina] Kolesnikova, the same as for Lebedev," Drel said. "I don't rule out that the court will approve a defense request and merge the cases of Khodorkovsky and Lebedev."

Both tycoons face up to 10 years in prison if convicted.

May 28 may prove to be a defining day in the months-long legal struggle, as it is also the day Yukos' appeal against a potentially crippling $3.4 billion back-tax bill is heard. A Moscow court on Friday upheld the tax evasion claim initiated by federal tax authorities. However, due to a rare legal victory scored by Yukos on Wednesday, the court cannot make the company pay taxes or fines before its appeal is heard.

The official probe into Yukos and the October arrest of its then-CEO Khodorkovsky are widely seen as a Kremlin-inspired effort to stifle the oil magnate's financial and political clout.

Asked at a news conference Friday what signal the government was trying to send with the Yukos case, President Vladimir Putin said, "The most important signal is that one must not steal.

"Everyone must observe the law, no matter what position he holds and how many millions or billions he has on his private or corporate accounts," Putin said, adding he would not comment further in order to avoid pressuring the court.

(MT, AP, Reuters, Bloomberg)