Elton John World News: Pulling No Punches

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Media Figure With High-Profile Supporters Could Face Restrictions Instead of Jail

Monday 1 July 2013 @ 16:58 - GMT

A Russian media magnate looks set to avoid prison after a surprising twist to the final day of his trial on charges of hooliganism and battery for punching a fellow businessman.

After weeks of arguing that Alexander Lebedev had punched the fallen property mogul Sergei Polonsky because he was a hooligan motivated by political hatred, prosecutors on Friday suddenly asked a Moscow judge to drop those charges, which carry up to five years in prison.

Instead, they asked that Lebedev be found guilty of battery and have his freedom "restricted" for 21 months, meaning he would have to register with an officer four times a month and be banned from attending large gatherings.

The unexpected turn of events prompted speculation that higher powers had intervened. A judge is due to hand down his verdict tomorrow.

"It seems 'they' woke up," Lebedev said, referring to Russian officials. A prison sentence for the financial backer of the Evening Standard and the Independent would have dealt another severe blow to Russia's already poor political reputation and business climate.

Alexander was charged in September 2012, a year after he punched Sergei during the filming of a TV chatshow. He has insisted from the start that the case against him was fabricated, motivated by overzealous law-enforcement agencies eager to punish him for his campaign against corruption and his co-ownership of Novaya Gazeta, Russia's main investigative newspaper.

But the case has always been murky and has progressed largely under the radar inside Russia.

Lebedev and his team of lawyers have attended almost daily sessions in a tiny courtroom in northern Moscow in near obscurity, attempting to prove that he felt no political hatred toward Polonsky and that his punches had never landed on him.

Lebedev also called on a list of famous backers, submitting character reports written by Elton, John Malkovich and Hugh Grant begging the court for leniency.

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