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LONDON, Nov 13: A British judge delivered a scathing indictment of Russia’s criminal justice system on Thursday, rejecting a bid to extradite a Chechen leader and provoking the wrath of the Kremlin.

After months of hearings at London’s Bow Street Magistrates’ Court, judge Timothy Workman said he was convinced there was a “substantial risk” Moscow would torture Akhmed Zakayev if he were sent there for trial.

“It would be unjust and oppressive to return Mr Zakayev to stand his trial in Russia,” he said.

The Kremlin said Workman’s decision amounted to an “attempt to justify terrorism”.

Russia had sought to extradite Mr Zakayev on 13 charges, including murder and kidnapping. The charges date from the first of two wars in the region from 1994-96, but in years since, Ahmed Zakayev became the chief Chechen peace negotiator, meeting Russian officials in Moscow as recently as 2001.

Timothy Workman said he believed Moscow sought the extradition to “exclude him from continuing to take part in the peace process and to discredit him as a moderate”.

He said he had concluded that fighting in Chechnya — where Russian tactics included carpet bombing the regional capital Grozny — was a war, not an “anti-terrorism operation”. Tens of thousands of people have died in two wars there over the last nine years.

Most damagingly of all, the judge said he believed a witness who testified he had been held in a pit and tortured for six days — including with electric shocks — to provide the Russians with a statement they had used against Mr Zakayev.

Western courts have repeatedly thrown out Russian extradition requests for exiled billionaire businessmen, but Moscow had clearly hoped that by labelling Ahmed Zakayev a terrorist it would win more sympathy for its case.

Russia first asked for his extradition while a Chechen “suicide squad” held hundreds of hostages in a Moscow theatre last year.

SMALL VICTORY: Mr Zakayev called the ruling “a small victory”.

“The greater victory will come when (Russian President Vladimir) Putin is in the dock,” he told a news conference.

“Just as I had to defend myself against accusations I was a terrorist, I believe he will have to defend himself against charges he is a war criminal.”

Zakayev was flanked by British actress Vanessa Redgrave — who put up 50,000 pounds bail to secure Zakayev’s release during the trial — and his former adversary at peace talks, President Boris Yeltsin’s top security aide, Ivan Rybkin.

Rybkin, who had testified in London on Zakayev’s behalf, compared the case to that of Russia’s richest man, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, now jailed awaiting trial for tax fraud.

“The leaders of Russia are trying to treat all their political opponents as criminals,” he said “This is vital for the coming generation... one day we will have courts as independent as those of Britain.”

Russia has failed in several efforts to secure custody of exiled tycoons, and had been snubbed by Denmark in a previous attempt to extradite Mr Zakayev.

ANGRY KREMILN: “The court’s decision can be seen not only as a recurrence of the politics of double standards, known from the period of the Cold War, but as an attempt to justify terrorism, using loud but meaningless phrases,” Kremlin Chechnya spokesman Sergei Yastrzhembsky said.

Russia’s prosecutors’ office said in a statement it could seek to appeal the ruling in Britain. But Yastrzhembsky suggested that was unlikely.

“The Zakayev case has been put in the archives,” he said.—Reuters