One of the more grotesque trials of recent Russian history came to an end as a Moscow court posthumously convicted the whistle-blowing lawyer Sergei Magnitsky of tax evasion.
Mr Magnitsky died in prison in 2009 after being ill-treated and not receiving treatment for pancreatitis. He had uncovered what he described as a massive fraud scheme that he alleged involved a number of Russian officials, but was then locked up by some of the same officials he was investigating.
Moscow’s Tverskoy Court was packed with journalists, but the defendant’s cage stood empty, as Judge Igor Alisov handed down the bizarre verdict. He convicted Mr Magnitsky of tax evasion, though for obvious reasons was unable to hand down a sentence.
“Magnitsky masterminded a massive tax evasion scheme in a ... conspiracy with a group of people,” said Mr Alisov in barely audible tones as he took 90 minutes to read out the verdict. The court claimed that Mr Magnitsky was aided by William Browder, the British head of Hermitage Capital, the investment fund that had hired Mr Magnitsky to look into corruption. Mr Browder was sentenced in absentia to nine years in prison.
“This show trial confirms that Vladimir Putin is ready to sacrifice his international credibility to protect corrupt officials who murdered an innocent lawyer and stole $230m from the Russian state,” said Hermitage Capital.
The London-based hedge fund manager has denied the charges and said the trial was politically motivated. His defence team have said they will appeal against the verdict.
Mr Magnitsky’s family refused to attend the trial, calling it a “farce” and an “insult” to the lawyer’s memory.
It is the first posthumous trial in modern Russia, and most observers agree that the case was politically motivated. Even the Kremlin’s own human rights ombudsman, Mikhail Fedotov, said that he opposed the trial and verdict, which he said “contains elements of ancient and pagan thinking”.
Russia is furious as the use of Mr Magnitsky as a geopolitical rallying call. Last year, the US passed the “Sergei Magnitsky Act”, which bans Russian officials implicated in his death from entering the country.
None of the officials whom Mr Magnitsky implicated in the alleged corruption, nor those who were believed to have been responsible for his death, have been convicted of any crime. Last year, a court acquitted a prison doctor accused of negligence over the death.