The empty bench in the defendant’s holding cell in the Moscow court on Thursday. (Reuters)
Moscow, July 11: The steel cage reserved for the defendants was empty today, which was not surprising since one of them is dead and the other lives in London.
The judge’s voice was nearly inaudible. As he read out his verdict, one of the main defence lawyers paid no attention, tapping nonchalantly on his tablet computer instead.
If the posthumous prosecution of Sergei L. Magnitsky, the lawyer who was jailed as he tried to expose a government tax fraud and died four years ago in a Russian prison after being denied medical care, seemed surreal from the moment the authorities announced it late last year, the verdict and sentencing today did not disappoint.
By all accounts, it was Russia’s first trial of a dead man and in the tiny third-floor courtroom of the Tverskoi District Court. It took the judge, Igor B. Alisov, more than an hour and a half to read his decision pronouncing Magnitsky guilty on tax evasion charges.
Magnitsky was convicted along with his former client, the financier William F. Browder, who lives in Britain and was tried in absentia on the same charges. Browder, once Russia’s largest foreign investor, was sentenced to nine years in prison — a sentence that he will almost certainly never serve.
Interpol in late May refused a request by the Russian government to track Browder’s whereabouts, a relatively rare instance of a law enforcement inquiry being set aside as politically motivated.
Browder said in a statement: “Today’s verdict will go down in history as one of the most shameful moments for Russia since the days of Joseph Stalin. This is the first conviction of a dead man in Europe in the last ten centuries.”
Magnitsky’s death — and the Kremlin’s refusal to hold anyone responsible either for his treatment in prison or for the fraud he tried to expose — has drawn international condemnation. President Vladimir V. Putin had angrily dismissed a question about the government’s handling of the case at his annual news conference in December.
Under Russian law, court proceedings involving dead defendants are normally allowed only to help a family clear a loved one’s name.
The proceedings today began almost precisely at noon. Judge Alisov, wearing a black robe, could barely be heard and he barely ever looked up, though he frequently repositioned his spectacles.
Despite the long recitation of facts and history, the result was rather simple: Magnitsky and Browder were found guilty of large-scale tax evasion stemming from an alleged scheme in which they fraudulently claimed benefits available to companies that employed workers with disabilities.
Magnitsky was imprisoned after accusing Russian officials of embezzling $230 million from the treasury. He died in pre-trial detention nearly a year after his arrest. While in custody he had received diagnoses of pancreatitis and gallbladder disease and wrote repeated requests for medical treatment, which were refused.
After announcing the guilty verdicts, Judge Alisov said that the case against Magnitsky was dismissed as a result of his death, presumably to explain why he was not announcing any sentence.