Russia presses on with plans to try dead whistleblower

MOSCOW Mon Jan 28, 2013 1:16pm EST

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MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russia pushed forward with plans for the posthumous trial of a lawyer on tax evasion charges on Monday, despite a boycott by relatives and lawyers who said President Vladimir Putin's government was "dancing on the grave of a dead man".

Sergei Magnitsky died in 2009 after complaining repeatedly he was denied treatment as his health declined in jail, prompting the United States last month to bar entry to Russians accused of involvement in his death or serious rights abuses.

Putin, restored to the presidency in May, has dismissed the international furor over the case, saying last month the lawyer had died of a heart attack.

Although Putin has rejected suggestions Magnitsky was tortured in prison, the Kremlin's own human rights council has voiced suspicions he was beaten to death.

Magnitsky's former employer, investment fund Hermitage Capital, says the lawyer was killed because he had accused law enforcement and tax officers of stealing $230 million from the state by setting up bogus tax refunds.

Magnitsky's mother and her attorney refused to show up for a preliminary hearing for a trial they denounced as a politically motivated attack on a dead man, forcing the Moscow court hearing the case to appoint defense lawyers.

"I think it is inhuman to try a dead man," Magnitsky's mother Natalya, who stayed away from the scheduled preliminary hearing, told Reuters by telephone. "This is not a court case but some kind of farce, and I will not take part in it."

Her lawyer, Nikolai Gorokhov, said that according to Russian law the dead can be prosecuted at the request of relatives seeking to rehabilitate a loved one.

"The trial cannot be just, because it is simply illegal," said Gorokhov, who also refused to attend the hearing. "The entire trial is set up only to blacken Sergei's name."

"It's a dance on the grave of a dead man," he said.

He said the trial was aimed to discredit Magnitsky and Hermitage owner William Browder - who is to be tried alongside Magnitsky in absentia - and paint them as the criminals.

No Russian official has been convicted of any crime related to Magnitsky's death and Browder has said several officials allegedly involved in the tax fraud are living lives of luxury.

The Tverskoi district court postponed the pre-trial hearing until February 18.

DIPLOMATIC SPAT

The case against Magnitsky was initially closed after his death in November 2009, but authorities reopened it in 2011 as international criticism over his death - and Russia's apparent reluctance to hold anyone criminally responsible - mounted.

Magnitsky and Browder were charged last year, weeks before the United States adopted the Magnitsky Act which imposes asset freezes and bars from entry to the United States anyone suspected of a role in his death.

Russia responded with a law that imposed similar measures in return and also barred Americans adopting Russian children, adding to tension that has increased since Putin's return to the presidency last May.

The legislative confrontation has added to strains over issues ranging from the Syrian conflict to the treatment of Kremlin opponents since Putin began his successful bid to return to the presidency after four years as prime minister.

The exchanges have clouded a 'reset' in ties that U.S. President Barack Obama launched early in his first term, months before Magnitsky's death underscored risks faced by Russians who challenge the state.

One prison official was tried last year but prosecutors asked the court to clear him after Putin said Magnitsky had not been tortured, and the judge complied.

Browder, who lives in Britain and campaign for the U.S. legislation, has also said he would not take part in the trial.

He was one of the biggest Western investors in Russia but was barred from the country in 2005 as Hermitage found itself under increasing official pressure after he aired vocal criticism of corporate governance at large Russian companies.

Amnesty International's regional director, John Dalhuisen said the Magnitsky trial was an attempt to deflect attention from those who committed the crimes he exposed.

It would set "a dangerous precedent that would open a whole new chapter in Russia's worsening human rights record," he said.

(Additional reporting by Alissa de Carbonnel; Editing by Jon Boyle)

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