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Family of Sergei Magntisky accuse Russian embassy in London of 'deliberately disseminating false information'

The whistle-blower died in a Moscow cell after months of torture

The mother and the widow of Sergei Magntisky, a whistle-blower who died in a Moscow prison cell after months of torture, have accused the Russian embassy in London of “deliberately disseminating false information” by claiming his family wanted his posthumous trial.

The mother and the widow of Sergei Magntisky, a whistle-blower who died in a Moscow prison cell after months of torture, have accused the Russian embassy in London of “deliberately disseminating false information” by claiming his family wanted his posthumous trial.

Mr Magntisky died three years ago after exposing a massive tax fraud carried out by elements of the Russian Interior Ministry and underground criminal networks. But instead of going after the perpetrators of the fraud, Russian prosecutors have taken the unprecedented step of launching a posthumous prosecution of Mr Magnitsky, blaming him for carrying out the scam he uncovered.

After a series of reports in the British press following the latest court hearing in Moscow earlier this month, the Russian Embassy in London put out a statement stating that the trial was going ahead because Mr Magnitksy’s family “insisted on his posthumous rehabilitation”. The statement added:  “According to the information available, this is precisely what the mother of Sergei Magnitsky and his advocates insist on.”

But that claim has been angrily denied in a letter to the embassy by Natalia Magnitskaya and his widow Natalia Zharikova which has been seen by The Independent.

“The close relatives of Sergei Magnitsky consider the publishing on the website of the Russian Embassy of the report that his posthumous criminal prosecution is being carried out allegedly “on their request” as cynical and deliberate dissemination of knowingly false information intended to misinform the world public opinion,” the letter states.

The trial is believed to be the first time in Soviet or Russian history that a defendant will have been tried posthumously.

In a stinging critique of the Russian legal system, the two women add: “To present an accusation to Sergei Magnitsky three years after his death, when he himself can’t respond to it – means to cross the line that separates the civilised society from an uncivilised one and to say goodbye to the remains of conscience. The abuse of power and violations of the law lead to most serious consequences.”

Mr Magnitsky was hired by the Guernsey-based hedge fund Hermitage Capital Management to investigate how a police raid in Moscow led to vital corporate seals and documents being used to fraudulently transfer the ownership of two Moscow based subsidiaries into the hands of a criminal network. The crime group later applied for, and received, a massive £144m tax rebate with the help of corrupt tax officials who signed off the deal in less than 24 hours. It was the largest tax fraud in Russian history and the third time the group had been able to carry out the scam.

After being hired to investigate the fraud, Mr Magnitsky publicly named a number of Interior Ministry officials as being behind the scam but was subsequently arrested on tax evasion charges. He died nine months later after months of living in appalling conditions where medication was deliberately withdrawn after a severe beating from guards.

Russia admits that the tax fraud took place and the country’s own human rights watchdog said Mr Magnitsky was subjected to appalling treatment. But their refusal to prosecute those behind the scam has caused widespread criticism and jitters among international investors about the safety of doing business inside Russia.

The case has become something of a diplomatic nightmare for Moscow because it has publicly illustrated the often ingrained relationship between corrupt government officials and organised crime networks.

Late last year the United States banned any Russian official accused of involvement in Mr Magnitsky’s arrest and death of travelling Stateside or owning assets there. Moscow hit back with a tit-for-tat ban on Americans adopting Russian babies and pressed ahead with its prosecution of Mr Magnitsky.

But the posthumous case against Mr Magnitsky has only increased the criticism aimed at Moscow with human rights groups, his family and critics decrying what they see as the manipulation of Russia’s legal system for political reasons.

At the latest court hearing earlier this month the trial was postponed until March. Mr Magntisky’s family called on Moscow’s legal profession to boycott proceedings. Nonetheless defence lawyers were appointed to represent both Mr Magntiksy and William Browder, the UK based CEO of Heritage who is a vocal critic of the Kremlin and is a co-accused in the trial.

The Magnitsky family, meanwhile, say they are being hounded by officials as part of the ongoing posthumous prosecution of the dead Russian lawyer. This week his brother-in-law Andrei Zharikov was summoned for interrogation at the Interior Ministry and claims he was threatened with criminal prosecution if he disclosed what was said in the interrogation.

His lawyer has since filed an official complaint stating: “This action is clearly a further attempt by investigators to exert psychological pressure on people close to Sergei Magnitsky, and to use the powers of public office for the unlawful obstruction of the constitutional right for freedom of speech and freedom of expression.”