MOSCOW -- The steel cage reserved for defendants was empty Thursday -- not surprising since one of them is dead and the other lives in London.
As the judge, his voice nearly inaudible, read his verdict, one of the main defense lawyers paid no attention, instead tapping nonchalantly on his tablet computer.
If the posthumous prosecution of Sergei Magnitsky, the lawyer jailed as he tried to expose a huge government tax fraud who died four years ago in a Russian prison after being denied proper medical care, seemed surreal from the moment authorities announced it, Thursday's verdict and sentencing did not disappoint.
By all accounts, it was Russia's first trial of a dead man, and in the Tverskoi District Court's tiny third-floor courtroom, it took Judge Igor Alisov more than an hour and a half to read his decision pronouncing Magnitsky guilty of tax evasion.
Magnitsky was convicted along with a former client, William 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 he will almost certainly never serve. Interpol in late May refused a Russian government request to track Mr. Browder's whereabouts, a relatively rare instance of a law enforcement inquiry's being set aside as politically motivated.
Mr. Browder, barred from Russia since 2005, said in a phone interview Thursday from London that he believed the Kremlin was acting out of desperation. "Russia is a criminal regime," he 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."
Magnitsky's death -- and the Kremlin's refusal to hold anyone responsible for his prison treatment 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 the United States or maintaining financial assets there. Russia retaliated by approving a law putting reciprocal restrictions on Americans accused of rights abuses and barring U.S. citizens' adoption of Russian orphans.
Judge Alisov could barely be heard as he read his decision. Despite the long recitation, the result was rather simple: 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 firms that employed workers with disabilities.
Magnitsky was jailed after accusing Russian officials of embezzling $230 million from the treasury. He died in pretrial detention nearly a year later.
While in custody, he had received diagnoses of pancreatitis and gallbladder disease and wrote repeated requests for medical treatment, all refused. Authorities ruled that he died of toxic shock and heart failure. One prison official was tried in Magnitsky's death, but in a last-minute twist, prosecutors switched their view and urged acquittal.