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Last updated: February 17, 2013 5:30 pm
The posthumous trial of Sergei Magnitsky, a crusading lawyer who died in prison in 2009, is set to begin in Moscow on Monday. The trial is part of an effort by Russia’s government to push back against countries adopting blacklists similar to the Magnitsky law passed last December by the US.
As far as anyone can remember, it will be the first trial of a dead defendant in Russian, or Soviet, history and most expect a speedy conviction.
Bill Browder, the head of investment fund Hermitage Capital, and Mr Magnitsky’s former chief, says he believes the trial is connected to the passage last December of the Magnitsky law in the US, which imposes a visa blacklist and asset freezes on certain Russian officials accused of human rights violations.
Mr Browder recently began a campaign to promote similar laws in Europe, starting with a trip to Paris last week.
“This is just pure vindictive nastiness because they are trying to get some sort of conviction right away,” said Mr Browder. “They can then go around the world and say: ‘Look, you’re naming a law after a convicted criminal.’”
A representative of the prosecutor’s office said it had no additional comment. “The case materials explain everything. We have nothing additional to say.”
A Kremlin spokesperson said: “It’s not really our issue.”
Magnitsky is accused of abusing tax incentives to help a company avoid paying taxes in 2001, charges he was originally jailed for in 2008, after he accused several high-ranking police officials of perpetrating a $230m tax fraud. He died in prison after a year in which he refused to recant his accusations against the police.
Mr Browder points out that the statute of limitations on the accusations dating back to 2001 has run out. “But that’s not the only legal problem there is with this case,” he said.
“First, there is the statute of limitations, secondly, he had nothing to do with the company in question, and thirdly, he’s dead,” said Mr Browder, who said the trial showed that there was “absolute desperation in the government of Russia to try to blacken Magnitsky’s name after the Magnitsky law was passed in the United States”.
Magnitsky was also accused by prosecution officials in a 2010 press conference of being the perpetrator of the tax fraud which he exposed in 2008 and accused police of masterminding. However, this trial will not examine those accusations, Mr Browder said.
Masha Lipman, a political analyst at the Carnegie Centre in Moscow, said that trying Magnitsky appeared to go against Russian law. While Russian law does allow a deceased person to be brought to trial, it is usually only for the purpose of rehabilitation, and only at the family’s request, she said.
Magnitsky’s mother Natalya and her attorney, meanwhile, have opposed the case from the start, and refused to show up for a preliminary hearing in January, forcing the Moscow court hearing the case to appoint defence lawyers.
The Kremlin’s reaction to Magnitsky’s death has changed drastically between 2009, when Dmitry Medvedev was still president, and the present day when the administration is once again under Vladimir Putin.
A vocal critic of Russia’s legal nihilism, Mr Medvedev had promised to clean up corruption in Russian law enforcement, eliminating pre-trial detention for businessmen accused of economic crimes, and ordering that an investigation be opened into Magnitsky’s case specifically.
While Mr Medvedev’s commission found that Russian police had fabricated charges against the lawyer, the Kremlin has since gone on the offensive. “The more allegations on the Browder side, the more stubbornly the Russian law enforcement has insisted it will prosecute Magnitsky itself,” Ms Lipman said.
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