London, 30 March 2005 (RFE/RL) -- The British media are rife with reports that President Putin is increasingly angry with the United Kingdom over extraditions.
Moscow has already accused British officials of sheltering Chechen "terrorists" and fugitive white-collar criminals in the past. The London court that acted on 25 March is the same one that previously rejected extradition requests for Chechen rebel envoy Akhmed Zakaev and exiled oligarch Boris Berezovskii.
The latest case involves two former Yukos executives -- senior accountant Dmitrii Maruev and Nataliya Chernysheva -- accused of billions of dollars' worth of fraud.
Professor Bill Bowring is an expert in law at the London Metropolitan University. He says British courts are not alone in their skepticism of the Russian justice system.
"I was the expert witness in the case. But I am a barrister as it happens, and I think it was a very good decision."
"It's very unpleasant for Russia, but actually one of the European Court of Human Rights cases which the judge had in mind in the case of Chernysheva and Maruev, was the case decided last year. Mr. [Vladimir] Gusinskii, the oligarch, was complaining about his arrest and detention in Russia. The [European] court decided that he had been arrested and detained for an ulterior motive in order to pressurize him into doing a commercial deal with the government," Bowring says.
Bowring notes that Russian judges appear to be under heavy state pressure. He says that makes it even harder for Russian authorities to swallow the U.K. court's rulings as independent.
It also provides added force to the London judge's suggestion that President Putin himself ordered prosecutions in the Yukos case.
Again, Professor Bowring:
"We have an extradition act in Britain. Under that act, the court can refuse extradition if the extradition is sought not in fact because of the crime but [rather] because of the political opinions of the person they seek to extradite -- basically, if the requesting state has an ulterior motive. So Judge [Timothy] Workman found that Russia did have an ulterior motive -- that the real reason was the political opinions of the defendant," Bowring says.
Bowring notes that extradition may also be denied in cases where discrimination is at work, or if a suspect's human rights might be violated.
The judge in the Yukos case stated that he was "satisfied there is a substantial risk that the judges of the Moscow City Court would succumb to political interference." That makes the ruling appropriate, in Bowring's opinion.
"I was the expert witness in the case. But I am a barrister as it happens, and I think it was a very good decision," Bowring says.
Defenders of jailed former Yukos boss Mikhail Khodorkovskii immediately hailed the U.K. verdict as a "momentous decision" and further evidence that the Yukos prosecutions are being directed from the Kremlin.
Russian authorities argued that Maruev and Chernysheva conspired in 1997 to use false contracts to defraud a regional authority of some $2.6 billion. They were also accused of conspiring with Khodorkovskii to defraud the state.
While applicant countries for such extraditions are not required to actually prove the guilt of the suspects involved, legal experts say that Russia's position in a British court was never easy.
Jane Henderson, a lecturer in law at London's Kings College, says extradition requests of this kind usually require a lot of evidence.
"If it's [a request from] within the EU, then there is a fast track, a different procedure, and basically there is no consideration of evidence. But if it's a request for extradition [to a state] outside the EU, then a lot of evidence would need to be considered -- especially if it's in a case where [the suspects] haven't even been arrested or convicted," Henderson says.
Russian authorities have not raised any formal protests against the ruling.
Bowring says such an appeal would be unlikely to succeed, since the Russian side did not call witnesses to defend against charges of political motivation.
"Both sides invited the judge to make a ruling on these issues, and the Russian government didn't call any experts to say that there was no political motivation or that there was no discrimination. In those circumstances it would seem to be very difficult for them to complain," Bowring says.
Henderson adds that Moscow could only dispute the ruling on technical grounds.
"The appeal would be to the Administrative Court, which is the divisional court of the High Court. But it would be on the basis that the decision taken was wrongly done -- judicial review of the sort of process by which this decision was taken. For instance, this happened in the case of General [Augusto] Pinochet [of Chile] being extradited. His team appealed whether the judge had acted properly and applied the right criteria," Henderson says.
"The Times" of London quoted a British member of parliament suggesting before the most recent decision that another extradition snub would seriously harm already strained relations between Downing Street and the Kremlin.
Whatever the effect on bilateral relations of the 25 March Yukos verdict, Russian authorities are also seeking the extradition of a third suspect. Aleksandr Gorbachev is due to appear before the same London court in April.