RUSSIA is preparing to put lawyer Sergei Magnitsky on trial – even though he died in 2009 – in the latest twist in a case that has become symbolic of rampant corruption in the country and which has severely strained relations with the United States.
The posthumous trial has already provoked outrage among rights groups, who see the whistleblower’s case as indicative of the rampant judicial abuse, outrageous corruption, and blurred boundaries between the state and organised crime that have plagued Russia under president Vladimir Putin.
Russian prosecutors accuse Mr Magnitsky and his former client, London-based investor William Browder, of a $230 million tax fraud carried out through subsidiaries of Browder’s company, Hermitage Capital Management.
Mr Magnitsky claimed in 2008 that the fraud was committed by an organised crime group which colluded with corrupt interior ministry officials to register themselves as the owners of three Hermitage subsidiaries, and then claim a $230m (about £146m) tax rebate. Mr Magnitsky was arrested by the same officials and accused of stealing the money himself.
A year later, Mr Magnitsky, 37, died in jail of pancreatitis, after what supporters claim was a systematic torture campaign.
A report by Russia’s presidential human rights council found in July 2011 that Mr Magnitsky had been repeatedly beaten and denied medical treatment.
“I think it is inhuman to try a dead man,” Mr Magnitsky’s mother, Natalya, said at the weekend. “This is not a court case but some kind of farce, and I will not take part in it.”
Russia’s top court ruled shortly after Mr Magnitsky’s death that posthumous trials were allowed, with the intention of letting relatives clear loved ones’ names. Though neither Mr Magnitsky’s relatives nor Mr Browder say they asked for charges to be refiled, prosecutors reopened the case just days after the ruling.
A Moscow court yesterday set preliminary hearings in the case for 18 February. Mr Browder is being tried in absentia; he has not been to Russia since he was banned from entering the country in 2005.
Evidence collected by Mr Browder on a website, Russian Untouchables, indicates that the officials accused by Mr Magnitsky became substantially wealthier after the tax rebate, spending vastly in excess of official salaries on international travel, luxury cars, and property in Dubai.
Officials in Switzerland, Cyprus, Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia are attempting to trace portions of the $230m rebate to banks in those countries.
Last December, tensions between Washington and Moscow flared when the US Congress passed a law named after Mr Magnitsky sanctioning officials that Mr Browder accuses of involvement in the fraud.
Mr Putin at that time said that Mr Magnitsky died of a heart attack and accused Mr Browder of politicising the lawyer’s death to distract from his own crimes.
Russia has responded to the US law by banning adoptions of Russian children by Americans, and dropping charges against a prison doctor on trial for negligence in Mr Magnitsky’s death.
Mr Browder says he hopes that the European Union will pass its own Magnitsky Act by the end of the year.
Natalya Magnitskaya’s lawyer, Nikolai Gorokhov, said that it was illegal to prosecute a dead person in Russia unless requested by relatives seeking rehabilitation for their loved one.
He dismissed the trial as a politically motivated attempt to paint Mr Magnitsky and Mr Browder as the criminals, rather than the Russian officials they have sought to expose.
“It’s a dance on the grave of a dead man,” Mr Gorokhov said.
Rights group Amnesty International said the planned trial of Mr Magnitsky was an “attempt to deflect attention from those who committed the crimes he exposed”.
It would set “a dangerous precedent that would open a whole new chapter in Russia’s worsening human rights record,” the group’s regional director, John Dalhuisen, said.