FOR THOSE with only half an eye on the state of Britain's relations with Russia, a court's refusal yesterday to return a Chechen leader to Moscow adds to the impression that London is turning into the unofficial home of Russia's diverse opposition.
Earlier this year one of the fabulously rich "oligarchs", Boris Berezovsky, was granted political asylum in this country. Now the Russian request for the extradition of Akhmed Zakayev, the former actor and deputy prime minister of Chechnya, has been emphatically rejected.
You do not have to be an apologist for Vladimir Putin, the Russian President, to assume that these decisions must be essentially political. But it takes only a moment's reflection to realise that this is unlikely to be the case. Tony Blair would like nothing better than to be helpful to his friend Mr Putin, whom he has cultivated since even before he assumed the presidency almost four years ago.
On the contrary, both decisions are a confirmation of the independence of the British judicial system - and, therefore, a sharp challenge of Mr Putin's pretensions to liberal democracy.
The evidence in the case of Mr Zakayev was particularly striking. In a courtroom coup de theatre worthy of best-selling fiction, Mr Zakayev's defence team sprang a surprise witness in the form of an official in the short-lived Chechen government who had denounced him on Russian television. Duk Vakha Doshuyev told the court that he had been forced to lie after six days of beating and torture. The Russian side, who had relied on Mr Doshuyev's televised statement in their request for deportation, asked for an adjournment, but from that moment yesterday's verdict seemed inevitable.
It may be that Mr Zakayev would not have been tortured had he been sent back to Russia, but it was at least, as the judge said yesterday, a "substantial risk". In any case, there was no prospect of Mr Zakayev receiving a fair trial on the …