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Tuesday, August 07, 2007

The Times Fires Back at RTR

Last week we reported on an pathetic effort by state-owned Russian TV to Photoshop a false headline on a British newspaper, the Times of London. Now, the Times fires back:

Even the Rich Deserve Protection from Russia

This is a message for viewers of Russia’s Vesti news programme and believers everywhere in the rule of law: the front page of The Times on Monday was not given over to a highly critical opinion piece about Boris Berezovsky, the Surrey-based Russian exile, billionaire and lover of black suede shoes.

Hilariously (if the intention and effect were not actually quite serious), Vesti mocked up and presented as real a Times front page for that day, replacing the news story that was actually published with Stefanie Marsh’s times2 column and the headline “Berezovsky is playing us, and it’s embarrassing”.

To be clear: Marsh did write this piece. It did appear under this headline (albeit nowhere near page one). It was misrepresented to suggest that the British Establishment had turned against its richest refugee and was baying for him to be handed back to Russia, where he is wanted on multiple fraud charges. But it’s still worth refuting.

Marsh is right that Russian oligarchs with expensive PR machines should almost never be taken at face value. But there is nothing embarrassing about Berezovsky’s current status as a legal British resident. We should be proud of it, and wary of cancelling it. His curious presence here, consorting with fellow exiles and zooming in and out of West London in blacked-out limousines, is a powerful statement, by a British judicial system that more or less works, that it will not do business with a Russian system that patently doesn’t.

Every paragraph of the Berezovsky story is sensational – the billions raked from the wreckage of the Soviet Union, the untrammelled power under Yeltsin, the epic falling out with Putin, the escape to London and the inflammatory call to topple the regime he left behind.

But only one paragraph has ever been relevant to Britain’s courts: Berezovsky’s claim to have a “well-founded fear of persecution” should he return to Russia. Rejected at first, this claim was accepted on appeal in September 2003, when Berezovsky was granted asylum. The Russian Ambassador to London said then that the decision showed contempt for the work of the Russian Prosecutor-General, who had presented detailed fraud charges in support of an extradition request.

Berezovsky is no angel – but contempt is precisely what the work of the Russian Prosecutor-General deserves. At no point since Putin’s rise to power have holders of this office shown a hint of spine or independence. Instead they have forced through the incarceration or exile of Putin’s enemies and failed to solve a string of apparently political murders. Alexander Litvinenko’s was one. Should he be sent home, Berezovsky’s would very likely be the next. Russia is a great country, run by thugs. Even billionaires deserve protection from them.

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