Mr. Putin's show trial

Sunday, December 5, 2010; 9:18 PM

SOMETIME IN the next two weeks, a Moscow judge is expected to announce the conviction of and new prison sentences for Mikhail Khodorkovsky and Platon Lebedev, whose oil company, Yukos, was the largest private company in Russia before it was crushed and confiscated by the regime of Vladimir Putin. If that occurs, the notion that Russia might be moving toward the rule of law under Mr. Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev will no longer deserve serious consideration.

The trial has been a travesty, shocking even in a country that still remembers the show trials of Soviet times. Mr. Khodorkovsky, Yukos's founder, was first arrested in 2003 and convicted in 2005 on dubious tax charges. The new case, which was brought in 2007, contradicts the first. Now the charge is that the executives somehow stole most of the oil that Yukos was previously charged with selling and not paying taxes on. The purpose is obvious: to prevent Mr. Khodorkovsky, who once supported liberal opposition groups, from gaining freedom when his first sentence ends next year.

During 20 months in court, the prosecution has never seriously attempted to explain its muddled case. Instead it has sought to intimidate former Yukos executives into testifying against Mr. Khodorkovsky. One man who was imprisoned and suffering from AIDS was offered medical treatment in exchange for testimony. He refused - but several former and current senior Russian officials, including a former prime minister under Mr. Putin, have testified that the charges are groundless.

In a closing statement last month, Mr. Khodorkovsky ably summed up the larger meaning of the case. "The obvious conclusion of the thinking person is terrifying in its simplicity," he said. "The security bureaucracy can do whatever it wants. There are no private property rights. There are no rights at all for a person confronting the system." A U.S. embassy cable released by WikiLeaks offered a more pithy summary: "rule of law lipstick on a political pig." The government, it said, is "applying a superficial rule-of-law gloss to a cynical system where political enemies are eliminated with impunity."

The Obama administration has offered no public indication that this lawlessness will have any effect on its "reset" of relations with Moscow. U.S. officials may believe that quiet diplomacy will be more effective, and they understandably wish to preserve the benefits of their outreach to the regime, such as greater Russian cooperation on Iran. But as previous U.S. presidents have demonstrated, it is possible to challenge and even to penalize Kremlin rulers for their human rights violations while still pursuing initiatives such as arms control.

A ready vehicle is at hand: Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin (D-Md.), chairman of the U.S. Helsinki Commission, has proposed that the State Department impose visa sanctions on 60 Russian officials implicated in the death in prison of a lawyer, Sergei Magnitsky. A committee of the European Parliament recently endorsed similar action. The Obama administration could send a clear message to the Russian elite by sanctioning all those officials involved in the persecution of Mr. Khodorkovsky, Mr. Magnitsky and other victims of lawlessness. A Russia where "political enemies are eliminated with impunity" cannot be a reliable partner for the United States.

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