A Russian court has found deceased lawyer Sergei Magnitsky guilty of tax evasion, in a posthumous trial that has elicited widespread criticism in the west.

Magnitsky was convicted of tax evasion alongside his former client William Browder, the US-born chief executive of Hermitage Capital, who Russian authorities allege evaded about $17m in taxes.

Mr Browder, who lives in the UK and was tried in absentia, received a nine-year sentence. He has denied all charges against him. The judge closed the criminal case against Magnitsky but refused to rehabilitate him.

Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger, the German justice minister, condemned the verdict, saying on Twitter: “The conviction of the dead Magnitsky is further evidence of the Sovietisation of Russia.”

A spokesperson for Lady Ashton, the EU’s foreign policy chief, said the verdict “does not provide any answer to the real questions regarding the death of Mr Magnitsky”, adding that the EU would continue to raise the “disturbing” matter with the Russian government.

Magnitsky’s conviction comes almost four years after he died amid murky circumstances in a pre-trial detention centre after he had accused Russian police of complicity in a $230m tax fraud.

Mr Browder has used the subsequent years to launch an anti-corruption campaign in Magnitsky’s memory, and has been successful in his efforts to ban the officials he says were involved in Magnitsky’s death from travelling to the US or holding bank accounts there.

On Thursday Mr Browder condemned the verdict against his former lawyer. He told the Financial Times that with “the malicious pain” the trial had inflicted on Magnitsky’s family, President Vladimir Putin had “brought shame on Russia and firmly found himself a place in history for being the first western leader in a thousand years to prosecute a dead man”.

Magnitsky’s family had strongly opposed the dead lawyer being brought to trial.

The case against the whistleblower had originally been closed shortly after his death in 2009, and a presidential human rights commission headed by former Russian president Dmitry Medvedev found in 2011 that the charges against the lawyer had been fabricated.

Officials only announced the deceased Magnitsky would return to trial in early 2012 after Mr Browder began his campaign for his “Magnitsky List” of corrupt Russian officials to be passed in the US.

Magnitsky’s trial began in March – just three months after the US Magnitsky Act was passed.

“Putin is desperate to have some type of court judgment condemning Sergei Magnitsky so he can run around the world saying – you’re naming legislation after a man convicted in Russian court,” Mr Browder said referring to the Magnitsky Act. “He doesn’t realise that by convicting a dead man in Russian court he is only adding fuel to the fire.”

Others in the human rights community also condemned the verdict.

“Today’s verdict is the height of absurdity . . . The trial of a deceased person and the forcible involvement of his relatives has set a dangerous precedent that could open a whole new chapter in Russia’s worsening human rights record,” said Allan Hogarth, Amnesty International UK’s head of policy and government affairs.

“Finding the corpse of Magnitsky guilty is an act beneath [Andrey] Vyshinsky,” wrote Robert Amsterdam, the human rights lawyer, on Twitter, referring to the notorious state prosecutor under Stalin.

Pro Kremlin commentators admitted that the situation looked odd. Sergei Markov, deputy director of the Plekhanov Economic University in Moscow, said the trial was “necessary”.

“It certainly put Russia in a very difficult position,” he said, but added that the real target of the case was Mr Browder “who made billions off the backs of ordinary Russians” by evading taxes and buying cheap local shares in Gazprom, Russia’s gas monopoly.

Some observers said the case has offered a window into the thinking of the Kremlin, which sees itself as increasingly besieged by western plots aimed at discrediting and ultimately removing Mr Putin from power. “They think this whole thing is a conspiracy against Russia,” said Alexei Makarkin, an analyst at the Centre for Political Technologies, a Moscow think-tank.

However strange the spectacle of a posthumous trial, he said, it makes sense in the thinking of Russia’s political leadership as a demonstration of Russia’s intolerance for western criticism. “It is a demonstrative step,” he said. “It is an attempt to show that the opinion of the west does not interest us. The message is ‘you can talk all you want, but Russia is a sovereign country’.”

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