If Mr Putin believes in democracy, there should not be show trials in Russia

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Two trials open this week in Moscow that carry unfortunate echoes of the bad old days of the Soviet Union, when the thought police were ever on the prowl and the least sign of ideological dissent was crushed.

Two trials open this week in Moscow that carry unfortunate echoes of the bad old days of the Soviet Union, when the thought police were ever on the prowl and the least sign of ideological dissent was crushed. First in the dock, yesterday, was the head of the city's Sakharov museum, charged with blasphemy for organising an exhibition that, in the prosecutor's view, profaned Russian Orthodoxy. And today, after months of legal wrangling, the trial opens of Mikhail Khodorkovsky and his associate, Platon Lebedev, who were formerly - and probably still are - among the richest men in Russia. They are charged with fraud and tax evasion on a grand scale, when they headed Russia's biggest oil company, Yukos.

What connects these two trials are the claims of the defendants and their lawyers that the charges against them are politically motivated. The lawyer for the museum director argues that the Kremlin has brought the blasphemy charges to punish the museum for its very public opposition to Russia's war in Chechnya. The thrust of Mr Khodorkovsky's defence is expected to be that he was picked out for punishment because he openly expressed an ambition to stand against Vladimir Putin for the Russian presidency.

It is a sad reflection on the half-heartedness with which President Putin has pursued judicial reform in Russia that accusations of political interference come so automatically to defence lawyers, more than a decade after the end of Communist rule. It is more regrettable still that in these two otherwise very different cases the theory of a political motivation should seem so plausible. Yet there are important differences between them.

Blasphemy, as we know from trials in our own country and elsewhere not so long ago, raises fierce passions. What is shockingly blasphemous to some leaves others indifferent. Deciding whether there is an offence - or even whether blasphemy should feature on the statute book of a secular state at all - is a matter for individual countries and the level of tolerance will depend to an extent on the public consensus. The post-Soviet Russian state is still defining itself, but one aspect of national identity that has grown in importance is Orthodoxy. Russians themselves must define what is acceptable. The presence outside the court yesterday of protesters denouncing a new "Inquisition" was evidence at least of a debate.

The Khodorkovsky case is different. He and Mr Lebedev ran arguably Russia's most successful company. Like other so-called "oligarchs", they made their fortunes during the corrupt and chaotic period when state assets were privatised. Sometimes compared to the heyday of early capitalism in America, these were years in which dog ate dog and only the "fittest" survived. Few of Russia's richest individuals today will have arrived where they are without committing some crime, for which they will always be vulnerable before the law.

So the question to pose as the Yukos trial begins is less "are the defendants guilty?" - it is highly unlikely that they have no financial or tax crime to answer - than "why is it that these particular men have ended up in the dock?" And to this question there are many possible answers. One theory is that the Kremlin moved against Yukos to prevent a foreign (US) company becoming a majority shareholder. Another is that Mr Khodorkovsky, like many of the oligarchs who have found themselves in trouble, was singled out because he is Jewish. A third is that Mr Khodorkovsky broke an unofficial concordat with the Kremlin under which the "oligarchs" would be left to enjoy their wealth so long as they kept out of politics. A fourth is that Mr Putin, a known bearer of grudges, simply dislikes Mr Khodorkovsky and always has.

There are, then, many possible explanations for what increasingly, and disgracefully, resembles a Kremlin-orchestrated show-trial designed to keep the "oligarchs" out of politics. But none of them is acceptable in a civilised, law-governed society of the sort that - Mr Putin insists - Russia aspires to be.

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