Russian Court Convicts a Kremlin Critic Posthumously

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MOSCOW -- The steel cage reserved for the defendants was empty Thursday, which was not surprising since one of them is dead and the other lives in London. As the judge, his voice nearly inaudible, read out his verdict, one of the main defense lawyers paid no attention, tapping nonchalantly on his tablet computer instead.

If the posthumous prosecution of Sergei L. Magnitsky, the lawyer who was jailed as he tried to expose a huge government tax fraud and died four years ago in a Russian prison after being denied proper medical care, seemed surreal from the moment the authorities announced it, the verdict and sentencing on Thursday did not disappoint.

By all accounts, it was Russia's first trial of a dead man, and in the tiny third-floor courtroom of the Tverskoi District Court, it took the judge, Igor B. Alisov, more than an hour and a half to read his decision pronouncing Mr. Magnitsky guilty of tax evasion.

Mr. Magnitsky was convicted along with a former client, William F. Browder, a financier who lives in Britain and was tried in absentia on the same charges. Mr. Browder, once Russia's largest foreign portfolio investor, was sentenced to nine years in prison -- a sentence that he will almost certainly never serve. Interpol in late May refused a request by the Russian government to track Mr. Browder's whereabouts, a relatively rare instance of a law enforcement inquiry's being set aside as politically motivated.

Mr. Browder, who has been barred from Russia since 2005, said in a telephone interview from London on Thursday that he believed that the Kremlin was acting out of desperation.

"Russia is a criminal regime," Mr. Browder said. "The Russian state is a criminal state. And in order to operate in Russia, you have two options as a businessman: you can become part of the criminality, in which case you become a criminal, or you can oppose it, in which case you become a victim, and there's no way you can avoid it."

He added: "We exposed it and opposed it. And as a result, he is dead and I am sentenced to nine years in absentia."

Mr. Magnitsky's death -- and the Kremlin's refusal to hold anyone responsible for either his treatment in prison or the fraud he tried to expose -- has drawn international condemnation. It also set off a major diplomatic row with the United States, which late last year adopted a bill named after him that bars Russian citizens accused of human rights abuses from traveling to America or maintaining financial assets there.

Russia retaliated by approving a law putting reciprocal restrictions on Americans accused of rights abuses and barring the adoption of Russian orphans by American citizens.

Mr. Browder has been lobbying other countries to adopt laws identical to the one in the United States. Britain has not yet approved legislation, but its immigration minister, Mark Harper, has said it has taken its own administrative steps to deny entry to those accused of abusing human rights.

The Kremlin has brushed aside the international criticism as unwarranted meddling in Russia's internal affairs, and President Vladimir V. Putin angrily dismissed a question about the government's handling of the case at his annual news conference in December.

"I don't know the details, but I know anyway that Mr. Magnitsky died not from torture -- nobody tortured him -- but from a heart attack," Mr. Putin said, adding that the only question was if he had been given help in time.

But he quickly moved on to attacking the United States. "Do you think people don't die in American prisons?" he asked. "Come on. And so what? Shall we play it up?"

In recent months, Mr. Putin and other Russian officials have asserted that Mr. Magnitsky and Mr. Browder engaged in criminal activity, and the posthumous prosecution seemed intended to cement those allegations as fact. Under Russian law, court proceedings involving dead defendants are normally allowed only to help a family clear a loved one's name.

"Besides, this Mr. Magnitsky, as is known, was not some human rights champion; he did not struggle for human rights," Mr. Putin said at the December news conference. "He was the lawyer of Mr. Browder, who is suspected by our law enforcement of committing economic crimes."

The proceedings on Thursday began almost precisely at noon. The small, sweltering courtroom was filled with 22 video cameras and dozens of reporters; six guards in black uniforms, flak jackets and berets; four officials from the prosecution; and two court-appointed defense lawyers. Absent any defendants to prevent from escaping, the guards eyed the reporters and camera crews warily.

Judge Alisov, wearing a black robe, stood before a red and gold plaque of Russia's national emblem, the double-headed eagle. He held a folio of the decision in two outstretched hands, like a priest reading from a sermon. He could barely be heard and he barely ever looked up, though he frequently repositioned his spectacles.

Despite the long recitation of facts and history, the result was rather simple: Mr. Magnitsky and Mr. Browder had been found guilty of large-scale tax evasion stemming from a scheme in which they fraudulently claimed benefits available to companies that employed workers with disabilities.

Mr. Magnitsky was imprisoned after accusing Russian officials of embezzling $230 million from the treasury. He died in pretrial detention nearly a year after his arrest. While in custody he had received diagnoses of pancreatitis and gallbladder disease and wrote repeated requests for medical treatment, which were refused.

The authorities ruled that he had died of toxic shock and heart failure. One prison official was brought to trial in Mr. Magnitsky's death, but in a last-minute twist prosecutors switched their view and urged an acquittal.

Mr. Browder and Mr. Magnitsky's family refused to participate in the case, and the government was ultimately forced to appoint lawyers for both of them. Neither lawyer said a word during the proceedings on Thursday.

There was no immediate comment from the Kremlin on the verdict.

In Washington, Jen Psaki, the State Department spokeswoman, called the verdict an "unprecedented posthumous criminal conviction" and said, "We continue to call for full accountability for all those responsible for Magnitsky's wrongful death."

On Capitol Hill, Senator Robert Menendez, Democrat of New Jersey and chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, issued a statement, saying, "The trend toward authoritarianism in Russian and the accompanying escalation in violations of human and civil rights is reason for grave concern."

After announcing the guilty verdicts, Judge Alisov said the case against Mr. Magnitsky had been dismissed because of his death, presumably to explain why the judge was not announcing any sentence.

At one point, a Moscow court ruled that the criminal case against Mr. Magnitsky was legal, even though he was dead, because his mother had insisted that her son was innocent in interviews with the news media.


This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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