Russia on Thursday opened a fraud trial against Sergei Magnitsky, a lawyer whose prison death in 2009 led to the biggest US-Russia row in years, despite protests by the defence it was illegal to try a dead man.
The Magnitsky family defence lawyers refused to participate in an “unconstitutional” process against a dead man and the judge was forced to adjourn the hearing until the new year.
“The preliminary hearing into Magnitsky’s case has been moved to January 28 due to the absence of the lawyers from the defence,” the press service of the Tverskoy district court in Moscow told AFP.
Magnitsky was arrested in 2008 and spent nearly a year in squalid prison conditions, dying at the age of 37 of untreated illnesses. A report by the Kremlin human rights council last year said he was tortured and handcuffed in his final hours.
Before his arrest, the lawyer said he uncovered a tax scam worth 5.4 billion rubles ($235 million) against the company he worked for, investment fund Hermitage Capital, which involved interior ministry officials.
But he was then charged with the very crimes he claimed to have uncovered and was placed in pre-trial detention. The case was closed after his death but then reopened in August 2011.
Investigators had said in February they planned to put the dead man on trial. Russian prosecutors last month sent the case against Magnitsky to court.
Magnitsky and his former employer — the head of Hermitage Capital William Browder — are accused of tax evasion worth 522 million rubles.
Browder — who is currently based in London — is being tried in absentia.
Nikolai Gorokhov, a lawyer of Magnitsky’s family, told AFP that he has “no plans to participate in an unconstitutional affair”.
Despite a request by Magnitsky’s relatives not to launch the fraud probe that has been closed after his death, it was reopened at the request of the prosecutors, said Gorokhov, adding that this violates a decision by Russia’s Constitutional Court.
Gorokhov argued that a legal case could only involve a dead man if it was aimed at quashing a previous conviction or rehabilitation.
Browder also denounced the trial, calling it “an act of reprisal against those who exposed the criminal group of corrupt officials”, Hermitage Capital quoted him as saying in a statement.
Browder had spearheaded the campaign to punish those allegedly responsible for Magnitsky’s death, with the United States passing this month the Magnitsky Act, which blacklists such individuals.
In response, the Russian parliament has passed a law banning adoptions of Russian children by Americans. The law is awaiting President Vladimir Putin’s signature.