Russia triggered an international outcry Thursday
when a Moscow court found a whistleblowing lawyer - who died nearly
four years ago in police custody - guilty of tax evasion and
sentenced his boss in absentia to nine years in prison.
Sergei Magnitsky devised a tax fraud scheme that cost the Russian state some 15 million dollars, Moscow's Tverskoi court ruled. The judge then said that the case was closed without sentence, but that the verdict prevents Magnitsky from being rehabilitated posthumously.
Magnitsky, whose relatives boycotted the posthumous trial, died in November 2009 in a Moscow detention centre. He had been charged and arrested one year earlier in the tax allegations, after he had accused officials of stealing 230 million dollars in state money.
A leading Russian rights activists called the verdict "disgusting" and illegal. Valery Borshchyov, who led an independent investigation into Magnitsky's death, told dpa that the court case blatantly violated a law that blocked dead people from facing trial unless their relatives agree.
"Magnitsky's family has been categorically against this trial," said Borshchyov, who heads a government-sponsored prison watchdog that found Magnitsky was abused in prison before his death.
The European Union sharply criticized the verdict. Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite, whose country holds the rotating EU presidency, said in Vilnius that it was "a symbolic act that shows the level of human rights violations in Russia," Interfax reported.
German Justice Minister Sabine Leutheuser-Schnarrenberger said on Twitter that the verdict was "another indication of the Sovietization of Russia."
US State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki called the posthumous conviction "unprecedented" and the trial a "discredit to the efforts of those who continue to seek justice in his case."
"Despite widely publicized, credible evidence of criminal conduct resulting in Magnitsky's death, the authorities have failed to prosecute those responsible," she said.
Russia's human rights ombudsman, Vladimir Lukin, said the verdict contained elements of "ancient pagan mentality."
"Why don't we try Ivan the Terrible or Kurbsky?" he asked the Interfax news agency, referring to Andrei Kurbsky, a bitter opponent of the 16th-century tsar.
The court sentenced Magnitsky's former employer, Bill Browder, to nine years in a labour camp for aiding the tax scheme. The sentence was made in absentia, as the US-born businessman has lived in London since being ejected in 2006 from Russia.
Founder of investment firm Hermitage Capital, Browder alleges that Magnitsky was tortured and killed in prison, and has waged an international campaign to punish the Russian officials he says are responsible.
A Russian investigation into Magnitsky's death was closed in March with no charges filed.
The case caused a major row with Washington in December, when the US Congress passed the Magnitsky Act, which bans Russian human-rights offenders from entering the United States.
Moscow retaliated by tightening sanctions on US non-governmental organizations and banning US citizens from adopting Russian children.
Britain's Home Office said this week in reply to a Conservative legislator that 60 Russian officials linked to the Magnitsky case have been barred from entry. However, the comments were retracted Tuesday, leading to media speculation that London wants to avoid a spat with Moscow.
A defiant Browder said Thursday that he would continue his fight for justice for Magnitsky. He called the ruling "one of the most shameful moments for Russia since the days of Joseph Stalin."
"When the Putin regime ultimately falls, future generations of Russians will be naming streets and monuments after Sergei Magnitsky," Browder said.
Russia has sought Browder's extradition but has so far failed to get him on Interpol's wanted list.
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