Lack of conviction: Obama and the trial of Russia's leading political prisoner

The bogus second conviction of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, a former oil tycoon turned prominent dissident, calls for both President Obama and President Dmitry Medvedev, Prime Minister Putin's protégé, to stand up strongly for the rule of law in Russia.

Talk about timing. A Russian court waited until this week – after the US Senate had ratified an arms-control treaty with Moscow – before handing down yet another conviction on that country’s best-known political prisoner, Mikhail Khodorkovsky. Sentencing is expected in coming days.

The conviction also came as the West is preoccupied with the winter holidays and not focused on the rise of human rights abuses in Russia.

But here’s the best timing: Mr. Khodorkovsky will now likely be sentenced to several more years in a Siberian penal colony – further isolating him until well after next year’s parliamentary elections and a 2012 vote for president.

The former oil tycoon’s real crime was that he dared to challenge Vladimir Putin’s iron-fisted rule by funding pro-democracy political activists. For that, he was first sentenced for fraud and tax evasion in 2003. Now he’s been convicted of theft, a charge that not only appears ludicrous but seems timed to prevent him from upsetting Prime Minister Putin’s apparent plan to become president again.

This kangaroo-court ruling will only further scare away foreign investors who are vital to modernizing Russia. Businesses are more wary than ever of the political and commercial corruption that pervades Russian society under Putin’s sham democracy and state-controlled economy.

Putin is able to silence his critics in part because President Obama still prefers to seek Russia’s cooperation in dealing with Iran’s nuclear program, the war in Afghanistan, and nuclear proliferation. A US desire to “reset” ties with Moscow, however, should not mean a retreat from pushing human rights.

The White House expert on Russia, Michael McFaul, needs to remind Obama, the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize laureate, that America’s most important long-term interest in Russia lies in helping that country adopt Western civic values. (That’s what the cold war was all about.) In fact, it would be worth reminding the president that he cosponsored a resolution in 2005 as a senator to recognize Khodorkovsky as a political prisoner.

Europe, too, must not abide Putin’s perverse obsession with silencing Khodorkovsky. This year’s Nobel Peace Prize went to China’s leading dissident, Liu Xiaobo. Given Khodorkovsky’s transformation into a political martyr and an astute champion of pluralism in Russia, he should be a candidate for similar honor.

Alas, Russia was just awarded the prize of hosting the 2018 soccer World Cup. And Putin won another feather in his cap when Russia won the bid to host the 2018 Winter Olympics.

The Khodorkovsky conviction will also hurt Putin protégé Dmitry Medvedev, who became president in 2008. His call for rule of law in Russia now rings hollow. (He referred to the new charges against Khodorkovsky as “odd.”) And his attempts to entice high-tech investments will likely fail, further preventing Russia from moving beyond its oil-dependent economy.

Strangely, the best barometer of political freedom and rule of law in Russia has now become the length of time that Khodorkovsky will stay in prison. If Medvedev or Obama ever want to stand up to Putin’s tyrannical type of Russia, they best speak up this week – before the Putin-friendly court announces its sentence on Khodorkovsky.

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