MOSCOW – Russia is preparing to put lawyer Sergei Magnitsky on trial, even though he died in 2009, an unusual twist in a case that has become a byword for Russian corruption and severely strained U.S. relations with Moscow.
Russia’s top court ruled in August 2011 that posthumous trials are allowed, with the intention of letting relatives clear their loved ones’ names. In Magnitsky’s case, family members say they don’t want another trial, yet prosecutors re-filed charges anyway. A Moscow court on Monday set preliminary hearings in the case for Feb. 18.
The move has outraged human rights groups who see the whistleblower’s situation as indicative of the rampant judicial abuse, skyrocketing graft, and blurred boundaries between the state and organized crime that have plagued Russia under President Vladimir Putin.
“The trial of a deceased person and the forcible involvement of his relatives is a dangerous precedent that would open a whole new chapter in Russia’s worsening human rights record,” Amnesty International said in a recent statement.
Magnitsky drew controversy in 2008 after claiming that an organized crime group colluded with corrupt Interior Ministry officials to claim a $230 million tax rebate through illegally obtained subsidiaries of Hermitage Capital Management, the company of Magnitsky’s then-client, London-based investor William Browder.
Those same officials had him arrested and placed in pre-trial detention. Magnitsky and Browder were accused of evading $16.8 million in taxes.
A year later, the 37-year-old Magnitsky died in jail of pancreatitis, after what supporters claim was systematic torture. Russia’s presidential human rights council found in July 2011 that Magnitsky had been repeatedly beaten and deliberately denied medical treatment.
Magnitsky’s mother, Nataliya Magnitskaya, said she had no faith the officials who she believes are complicit in her son’s death could give him a fair trial.
“What are they going to say? ‘We’re guilty and we should be punished?’ It’s obvious what’s going to happen,” she said. “They just want a conviction. Maybe they’ll change the venue to the cemetery and try Sergei there.”
The Russian court ruling allowing posthumous trials came after an appeal by the family of an obstetrician who died after being killed in a collision with a car of a top oil company executive. Prosecutors reopened Magnitsky’s case just days after the 2011 ruling. His mother has since filed 25 appeals asking for the case to be closed.
Browder is being tried in absentia; he has not been to Russia since he was banned from entering the country in 2005.
“To try a dead man is beyond evil,” Browder told The Associated Press in a telephone interview Monday. “This is a politically directed prosecution – Putin and (Prime Minister Dmitry) Medvedev have both directed, have sent the instructions for the outcome of this case.”
Russia’s troubled criminal justice system has a long history of staging grandiose, politically motivated trials aimed at sending a message to opponents of the state. Under Joseph Stalin, the Soviet Union saw numerous show trials of top officials, many of which ended with summary executions.
In modern Russia, vaguely defined charges of “economic crimes” are frequently used to seize assets and silence political opponents such as former oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky. One in six Russian businessmen have been accused of “economic crimes” since 2002, according to the country’s business ombudsman.
Browder has used a website, Russian Untouchables, to post material that allegedly shows the officials accused by Magnitsky became substantially wealthier after the tax rebate, spending vastly in excess of their meagre official salaries on international travel, luxury cars, and prime real estate in Dubai. The Russian officials deny any wrongdoing.
Officials in Switzerland, Cyprus, Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia are attempting to trace portions of the $230 million rebate to banks in those countries.
Putting Magnitsky on trial posthumously underscores the Kremlin’s defiance amid growing international concern over Russia’s human rights record and corruption.
Last December, tensions between the U.S. and Russia flared when Congress passed a law named after Magnitsky sanctioning officials Browder accuses of involvement in the fraud. Browder says he hopes the European Union will pass its own Magnitsky act by the end of the year.
Russia responded to the U.S. law by banning adoptions of Russian children by Americans and dropping charges against a prison doctor on trial for negligence in Magnitsky’s death.
Putin at that time said that Magnitsky died of a heart attack and accused Browder of politicizing his death to distract from his own crimes. The Russian president has decried the Magnitsky law as an “anti-Russian” attempt by Congress to impose America’s will on Russia’s sovereignty.
“Why does one country think it has the right to spread its jurisdiction all over the world?” he asked during a news conference in December.