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By Ray Fleming

The principal financial supporter of Britain's The Independent national newspaper and of the London Evening Standard was sentenced to 150 hours of community service in a Moscow court on Tuesday. The Russian-born Alexander Lebedev had initially been accused of showing “political hatred” against a fellow guest on a TV discussion programme -- an offence that could have led to a five year imprisonment -- but the prosecution reduced its charge to the offence of “hooliganism”. Even so Mr Lebedev says he intends to appeal against his sentence which took the judge an hour to read. The case has been interesting because it reveals several strands of Russian justice that may be in a state of flux. In the first place it seemed the accusations against Lebedev were in response to criticism of President Putin in the Russian daily newspaper Novaya Gazetta which he also owns but as his trial proceeded the weakness of the prosecution's case was exposed by witnesses called by the newspaper magnate. He was also able to produce a former KGB chief to give him a character reference and generally to present himself as “loyal critic” of the government.

After the verdict Mr Lebedev said, “I have felt myself in the skin of ordinary citizens” -- but few of the millions who pass through the Russian courts can afford to present the kind of defence that Mr Lebedev mounted.