A show trial reminiscent of the bad old days

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The detention, trial and judgment of Mikhail Khodorkovsky were all so protracted that the verdict and sentence, when finally pronounced, scarcely ruffled either the markets or foreign opinion. So used had we grown to the background rumbling of the Yukos affair that it seemed almost a permanent fact of Russian life. Perhaps the Kremlin was counting on just such an effect.

The detention, trial and judgment of Mikhail Khodorkovsky were all so protracted that the verdict and sentence, when finally pronounced, scarcely ruffled either the markets or foreign opinion. So used had we grown to the background rumbling of the Yukos affair that it seemed almost a permanent fact of Russian life. Perhaps the Kremlin was counting on just such an effect.

But the scandal of Mr Khodorkovsky and his now defunct oil company, Yukos, is no less of a scandal because of its longevity. What passes for Russian justice managed, within the space of 18 months, to bankrupt Russia's biggest oil company and destroy the country's richest man - one of very few who had tried to turn ill-gotten gains into a legitimate operation up to international standards.

There was little doubt that Mr Khodorkovsky would be found guilty as charged. That he was convicted of only six (of seven) counts and sentenced to one year less than the maximum 10 years was probably as good as it was going to get. Nor was there any need for the charges to be trumped up. No one who amassed riches in the anarchic days of Russia's post-Soviet "wild east" is likely to have done it without breaking the law.

The more disturbing question is why Mr Khodorkovsky was singled out from all the oligarchs - and not even the year-long trial has brought an answer. The speculation remains the same as it was when he was arrested, at gunpoint, in Siberia. Now, as then, his real crimes were thought to be his political, even presidential, ambitions. A more subtle version had it that he had "bought off" key Russian MPs, ensuring that legislation not to his liking would be blocked. And, fatally, President Putin was said to dislike him.

None of these, however, are justifiable reasons for prosecution in any civilised country. Either Mr Putin, for all his talk of making Russia a law-governed state, was more of a Soviet-style apparatchik than had been believed, or he was not fully in charge. Neither prospect was consoling. Foreign investors were shocked; a new generation of Russian entrepreneurs was in near panic. Russians, and their money, again fled abroad.

While Mr Khodorkovsky's next recourse is to appeal, the immediate damage is to Russia. It is not an encouraging sign that successive governments have not only failed to harness the enterprise and wealth of its Khodorkovskys for the country's benefit, but have driven so many others into exile. This harms Russia's image and deters foreign investment; it also deprives it of the home-grown wealth and talent it needs. Until the law is seen to be independent, however, and is applied fairly to all, there will be no real change for the better.

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