Moscow: A Moscow court on Monday put dead Russian lawyer Sergei Magnitsky on trial for tax evasion in defiance of his family’s complaints it was “desecrating” his memory, but swiftly adjourned the process to March 22.
After several preliminary hearings earlier this year, the trial proper got underway at the Tverskoi district court but the judge quickly adjourned the hearing to give the court-appointed defence more time to prepare.
The tiny courtroom was crammed with journalists who barely had any room to stand while the cage that usually holds defendants stood symbolically empty.
Magnitsky died in a Moscow prison in November 2009 of untreated illnesses after 11 months in pre-trial detention over a multi-million dollar tax evasion scam which his supporters say he exposed rather than committed. He was aged 37.
His family has boycotted the trial as a legal absurdity but the process is still going ahead after the court appointed defence lawyers to take Magnitsky’s case in defiance of the family’s wishes.
Putting a dead man on trial is theoretically allowed under Russian law but hugely unusual and this is believed to the first posthumous trial in the history of modern Russia.
“I see this trial as desecration of the memory of my husband Sergei Magnitsky,” his widow Natalia Zharikova said in statement released by his former employer Hermitage Capital.
“I think this trial has no legal foundation and goes against principles of rights and human values.”
She said that anyone “with a conscience” should not take part in the trial which she labelled as a “blasphemy”.
The lawyers appointed by the court argued that the timetable for the trial had not been properly agreed with them and asked until May 10 to study all 60 volumes of the case, of which they had only studied five.
After the prosecution countered that this was far too long, judge Igor Alisov set the date for the next hearing on March 22.
The co-accused is Magnitsky’s former employer William Browder, a US-born British citizen whose Hermitage Capital investment fund was once the biggest investor in Russia and has lobbied Western governments hard over the case.
Based in Britain, he is being tried in absentia.
Magnitsky’s death became a symbol of rights abuse in Russia and prompted the US Congress to adopt a law sanctioning Russian officials implicated in the death. Russia then hit back with measures of its own, including a ban on US adoptions of Russian children.
His supporters say that Magnitsky uncovered a tax scam that was being committed by top officials but then was arrested and charged with the very same crimes he had exposed.
Furthermore, he was then investigated by the same officials he had blamed. His supporters say his death was due to deliberate negligence, an accusation denied by the Russian authorities.
Legal proceedings against a prison doctor, Larisa Litvinova, accused in the case were halted in April last year. A senior prison official, Dmitry Kratov, who had been charged with negligence, was acquitted in a trial in December.