* 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 (Reuters) - 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,” she said.
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 politically motivated.
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.