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Britain Gives Berezovsky Political Asylum

Boris Berezovsky, surrounded by his security guards, leaving the Bow Street Magistrates Court after an extradition hearing on May 13. Toby Melville
Boris Berezovsky, the controversial powerbroker who has been living in self exile in London for nearly three years after locking horns with President Vladimir Putin, has been granted political asylum by the British government.

But British courts still have to rule on whether to continue to consider Russia's request for his extradition to face fraud charges.

"The British Home Office sent a letter to Berezovsky dated Sept. 9 stating it had granted him political asylum," Vladimir Voronkov, an aide to Berezovsky, said by telephone Wednesday.

The Home Office said it could not comment on individual immigration cases. But a British government official, speaking on condition of anonymity, confirmed that Berezovsky had been granted refugee status.

Berezovsky was the first to announce the decision, speaking Wednesday on Ekho Moskvy radio. He was unavailable for further comment, but Alex Goldfarb, the head of the New York-based Foundation for Civil Liberties, which is funded by Berezovsky, said he was delighted by the news.

"Naturally, I am very glad and satisfied with the decision because it has been recognized at the level of the British government that if he returns to Russia he will face political persecution," Goldfarb said by telephone from London.

The government official said it was now up to the courts -- and British Home Secretary David Blunkett as the ultimate overseer of the process -- to decide whether extradition proceedings against Berezovsky could still continue. "There is a clear dilemma," the official said.

Under British law, refugee status is granted if there are well-founded grounds to fear persecution at home on the basis of race, religion, nationality, personal opinions or membership in a particular social group. British extradition laws, meanwhile, state that extradition cannot take place if it can be proved that charges against the accused are in some way connected to his or her political opinions.

Berezovsky has said the call for his extradition on charges he defrauded the state out of 60 billion rubles in a 1994 deal for the AvtoVAZ carmaker is an attempt to muzzle him as Russia enters election season and as payback for his opposition moves. He has claimed his life would be in danger if he was sent back to Russia.

Russian law enforcement officials were unavailable for comment late Wednesday.

Berezovsky had been credited with engineering Putin's vault into the presidency, but he soon ruffled Kremlin feathers by loudly claiming that Putin was plotting a course to undermine democratic freedoms created under President Boris Yeltsin. After he said he was forced to sell his stake in ORT television, he left Russia in November 2000 and began an opposition campaign.

First he accused the Federal Security Service of being behind the 1999 apartment bombings that sparked the second war in Chechnya, which helped propel Putin into the Kremlin.

Then, last year he floated the idea of building a movement in opposition to Putin out of an unlikely alliance of Communists and the liberal Yabloko and Union of Right Forces parties.

The surprising move to grant him political asylum comes as a fellow oligarch, Yukos founder Mikhail Khodorkovsky, comes under pressure from the Kremlin in part for his moves to finance these same parties ahead of the December parliamentary election. In July, one of his right-hand men, Platon Lebedev, was arrested on charges of theft of state property in a 1994 privatization auction.

The British home secretary had already turned down Berezovsky's asylum request in late March, after the British government gave the green light to start the extradition proceedings.

Blunkett refused the request because he said he did not want to have to make a decision on whether criminal cases pending against Berezovsky in Russia were politically motivated, according to Alun Jones QC, a lawyer for Berezovsky who defended him in the first extradition hearing in London's Bow Street Magistrates Court on April 2. Instead, Blunkett said that should be a matter for the court to decide during extradition hearings, Jones told the court.

Berezovsky had been expecting to appeal that decision in a court hearing on Sept. 18, but, suddenly, he was granted asylum status, Voronkov said.

Analysts said the British government's sudden decision to grant him asylum could have come as a result of concern over the attack on Yukos.

"This is a sensation," independent political analyst Andrei Piontkovsky said. "This is a significant side-effect of the attack [on Yukos]. Berezovsky has used this dazzlingly to back up his case and show what can happen in Russia."

"This is the Berezovsky precedent," said Lilia Shevtsova, a senior associate at the Carnegie Moscow Center.

"For Russian oligarchs it means it is possible to show in England that being pursued for economic crimes often has political roots. In Russia there is often no difference between economic and political cases."

Berezovsky had said he would attempt to run in the State Duma elections. Goldfarb could not say whether Berezovsky still intended to make that attempt.

Staff Writer Oksana Yablokova contributed to this report.

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