The courts tell the truth about Russian democracy that Mr Blair dare not

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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 théatre 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 charges of murder, torture and kidnap that he faced.

Thus District Judge Timothy Workman in Bow Street Magistrates' Court can say what Mr Blair will not, which is that justice in Russia is far from perfect and democracy far from secure.

And thus this newspaper can say what Mr Blair will not, which is that Britain ought to be proud that it offers a safe haven to those - even to those as rich as Mr Berezovsky - who fear persecution in Russia. If Mr Blair is embarrassed that Mr Putin regards Britain as providing a platform for his opponents, he should not be. He should explain that, in Britain, the courts operate independently of government.

Of course, the situation in Chechnya is worse than in the rest of Russia, and the election there earlier this month was a travesty of the words free and fair. But the recent arrest of another of the "oligarchs", Mikhail Khodorkovsky, further adds to the impression that the contagion spreads much further than the local and well-known human rights abuses there.

The important question, though, is what should be done to put effective pressure on the Russian president to stick to the path of democracy and the rule of law.

Gareth Peirce, Mr Zakayev's solicitor, slightly spoiled her victory yesterday by calling on the British Government to "reassess" its diplomatic ties with Russia. Such a reaction would be misguided. Russian democracy may be imperfect, but it is not such a lost cause that the most constructive attitude is to cut off diplomatic relations.

Forthright condemnation is important, although we can expect little of the Prime Minister, who wants Mr Putin's support at the United Nations and wants to keep Russia safe for British business.

The best that can be hoped for is that the message from the British courts will be heard and respected around the world, and that the steady drip of embarrassment will keep Mr Putin's autocratic instincts in check.