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Communists bungle Gorbachev's show trial

IT HAS come to this: Russia's cranky Communists cannot even organise a decent show trial any more.

They tried. They rented an auditorium, packed it with bitter old crones baying for blood and recruited grim-faced jurors to sit at a long table on a stage and deliberate for four days on the treachery of the defendant, one Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev.

They also got the verdict right: guilty. Mr Gorbachev, a self-styled People's Tribunal pronounced yesterday, has destroyed the state, betrayed socialism, wrecked national security, violated human rights, committed crimes against morals, trampled on the Yalta, Potsdam and Helsinki agreements and stirred up ethnic conflicts.

'We sentence him to eternal damnation and shame,' said the chairman of the jury, Teimurazak Avaliani, a mine manager from Novosibirsk, erstwhile deputy of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR and die-hard loyalist of the cause he and everyone else in the auditorium, including the defence lawyers, accuse Mr Gorbachev of destroying.

But even kangaroo courts are not what they used to be. Stalin would have been appalled. The defendant refused to show up. But this detail could have been overlooked. Indeed, many of Stalin's defendants never appeared either (though they usually had a good reason: they had committed suicide the night before).

More difficult to overlook was the absenteeism of the jurors. There were supposed to be 12 of them but four lost interest and stayed at home.

The gravest breach of revolutionary discipline, though, was committed by a secretary hired to type out the verdict: she went on strike over pay. She stalked out in a huff. True to their Stalinist convictions, several spectators suspected a more sinister motive. The typist, they said, was a saboteur sent to delay the verdict and prevent them from attending a rally of hardline Communists scheduled for later in the day.

The sentence against Mr Gorbachev carries no legal force. Nor do the two orders read out by the chairman of the jury. One calls on foreign governments and all former Soviet republics to 'stop all contact with this man'. A second demanded that Russia's real courts also put Mr Gorbachev on trial.

That no one is likely to listen, least of all Mr Gorbachev, did not calm the enthusiasm of the spectators. Two hundred of them showed up to cheer on the prosecutor, Viktor Ilukhin, and a parade of witnesses told how Mr Gorbachev had plucked geese for the Nazis in his boyhood, taken bribes during his travels abroad and signed a pact with the devil.

Their only disappointment was that the show trial's verdict did not make a better show of their rage. 'Gorbachev should be executed,' declared Yelenor Yaganova, an old woman who spent the day screeching abuse from the back of the hall. 'If Stalin were here things would be a lot better. He created a super-power from nothing. He knew how to deal with enemies of the people.' Colonel (retired) Pyotr Balashov agreed: 'In the whole of human history there has never been such a case of treachery. Gorbachev deserves the highest punishment: shoot him, hang him, I don't care.'

Even Mr Gorbachev's court-appointed defence - a 30-year-old journalist and a 53-year-old housewife - seemed upset he got off so lightly. Their closing arguments adopted a novel line of defence: Mr Gorbachev is guilty, but so are lots of other people. Real blame, said one, lies with an international Masonic-Zionist conspiracy. The second defence counsel, Maria Mionova, blamed the whole Politburo for going along with perestroika: 'They are all guilty, not just Gorbachev. They should all be punished.'