MOSCOW, March 22 (RIA Novosti) – The unprecedented posthumous trial of Russian lawyer Sergei Magnitsky for tax evasion began on Friday as investigators denied he was arrested for uncovering major corruption by state officials.
This is believed to be the first time a dead person has been prosecuted in either Russian or Soviet history.
Magnistky, who worked for the British-based Hermitage Capital investment fund, was 37 when he died in a pre-detention facility in November 2009 – almost one year after being arrested on charges of tax evasion. His arrest came after he had accused Interior Ministry officials of involvement in a $230-million embezzlement scheme.
His death sparked international outrage and spurred U.S. lawmakers into passing a bill that will allow for visa bans and the freezing of bank accounts for Russian officials suspected of rights abuses.
Investigators have justified the trial by citing a 2011 law that allows relatives of deceased people charged with crimes to attempt to clear their loved ones’ names.
Magnistky’s relatives say they are completely opposed to the process going ahead.
“I have never asked for this trial,” Magnitsky’s wife, Natalya Zharikova, told Britain’s Daily Telegraph newspaper in comments published on Thursday. “How can you try a dead person?”
Amnesty International has slammed the decision to push ahead with the trial, calling it an indication of the country’s “worsening human rights record.”
Moscow’s Tverskoi Court rejected a defense request on Friday to consult the Constitutional Court over the trial’s legality.
Judge Igor Alisov said the court was “within its rights to examine the case against the deceased, including with the aim of his rehabilitation.”
Hearings had been due to start on March 11, but were postponed to give defense lawyers the chance to read the 60 volumes of case materials.
Activists and Kremlin’s own human rights council have said Magnitsky’s death was likely the result of a beating and the denial of medical assistance.
The Investigative Committee, an FBI-style law enforcement agency that answers to the president, dismissed those suggestions this week and said the lawyer had been legally arrested. It also explicitly denied on Friday that he had been arrested in connection with the allegations against Interior Ministry officials, saying a probe had revealed there was no evidence to suggest this.
President Vladimir Putin has also played down suggestions of foul play, saying that Magnitsky died of heart problems.
Magnitsky’s co-defendant and former boss at Hermitage Capital, William Browder, insists his colleague was murdered in reprisal for uncovering major embezzlement by Interior Ministry and tax officials.
Browder, who is being tried in absentia, says officials illegally seized Hermitage subsidiary companies and used them to defraud the state of millions of dollars in tax refunds.
He says that some of those engaged in the scheme were those involved in Magnistky arrest. The Investigative Committee says it has found no evidence to support those allegations.
Earlier this month, prosecutors charged Browder with “illegally purchasing” shares in the state gas monopoly Gazprom from 1999 to 2004. Browder has called the allegations “absurd.”