Predictably, the farce of the Sergei Magnitsky trial has ended in absurdity. The lawyer who exposed epic corruption in Russia’s bureaucracy before being beaten to death in police custody has himself now been convicted – posthumously – of corruption.
Perhaps the only surprise is that Mr Magnitsky’s embalmed corpse, or a simulacrum of it, was not propped up in the dock, in a ghastly parody of El Cid. Even so, it is hard to disagree with the judgement of William Browder, the head of the investment firm which Mr Magnitsky represented before he died, that the guilty verdict was “one of the most shameful moments for Russia since the days of Joseph Stalin”. The Magnitsky affair has plenty of rivals for that distinction. But, as far as is known, not even the Soviet Union put dead men on trial. Mr Browder himself was convicted in absentia, and sentenced to nine years in jail.
The wider lessons of the case are no less depressing. It has confirmed the old dictum that, if you wanted to understand what the Soviet Union was up to, you should study what it accused its critics of doing. So it is with contemporary Russia. For the umpteenth time, the lack of the independent judiciary that is the hallmark of a properly functioning democratic state has been on display and the world has been reminded of how far President Putin will go.
The consequences of the verdict could be far-reaching. The US Congress has already passed a Magnitsky Act, blacklisting Russian officials accused of human rights offences, including the persecution of the late lawyer. The Kremlin responded by barring the adoption of Russian children by American families. And foreigners will be more wary than ever of doing business with the kleptocracy that is the modern Russian state. Much-needed foreign investment will be curtailed and the flight of capital from the country may accelerate.
Such things are of little concern to Mr Putin, though. Russia has shown itself to be “strong”. And that is all that matters.
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