* Russian court plans to try dead whistleblowing lawyer
* Rejects attempt by relatives to block trial
* Spat over Magnitsky case has dented U.S.-Russia ties
By Timothy Heritage
MOSCOW, Feb 18 A Russian court on Monday pressed
ahead with plans to try a dead whistleblowing lawyer on tax
evasion charges, despite an attempt by relatives to block a
trial they say is inhuman and politically motivated.
Sergei Magnitsky died in 2009 after complaining he was
denied treatment as his health declined in jail, prompting the
United States last year to bar entry to Russians accused of
involvement in his death or human rights abuses.
Critics say the posthumous trial, which the state says is
possible under legal changes made last year, is a cynical act by
President Vladimir Putin to hit back against Washington.
Magnitsky's lawyers refuse to defend him in the trial and
boycotted a pre-trial hearing at the Tverskoi Court in Moscow on
Monday. The court rejected their attempt to stop a
state-appointed lawyer defending Magnitsky.
"Exploitation of the decree ordering the post-mortem
prosecution of my son by the Russian Federation's Prosecutor
General ... is illegal," Magnitsky's mother, Natalya, said in a
statement read out by the family's lawyer, Nikolai Gorokhov.
"From the civil point of view, it is cynical and inhuman,"
Court spokeswoman Alexandra Berezina said a pre-trial
hearing due on Monday had been postponed until March 4 to give
the defence lawyer appointed by the state time to prepare. She
did not say when the trial itself would begin.
Putin, back in the presidency since May despite the biggest
protests since he rose to power in 2000, has dismissed
international criticism over the case, saying in December that
Magnitsky had died of a heart attack at the age of 37.
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.
HERMITAGE REJECTS "BLASPHEMOUS TRIAL"
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.
Gorokhov says the dead can be prosecuted in Russia only at
the request of relatives seeking to rehabilitate a loved one.
This has not happened in this case, which the family says is
Gorokhov says the trial is intended to discredit Magnitsky
and Hermitage owner William Browder, who is to be tried in
absentia, and paint them as the criminals.
"The fact that this posthumous trial is going ahead
indicates that justice in Russia is turning into raw and
outright blasphemy," a statement issued by Hermitage said.
It said the court's order to the state to appoint a lawyer
to defend Magnitsky against the will of his relatives was
reminiscent of the treatment of political opponents during
Soviet dictator Josef Stalin's "purges" of 1937.
Hermitage also says the Russian authorities have opened a
new criminal investigation against it and ordered HSBC bank to
provide it with financial information dating back to 1996. It
said details of the new case were not yet clear.
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 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.