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Deadly justice for Russian whistleblower

Sergei Magnitsky's grave in Moscow. (Misha Japaridze/AP)

Habeas corpus got a whole new meaning this month in a Moscow court.

The Latin phrase means “may you have the body.” Translation: the accused must have his day in court.

But in Moscow’s Tverskoi District Court, the body is already dead. It’s that of Russian tax lawyer and whisleblower Sergei Magnitsky, who attempted to expose an alleged government tax fraud of massive proportions, and ended up on a slab in Butyrka Prison, reportedly with marks of a savage beating.

President Vladimir Putin maintained that Magnitsky had died of a heart attack.

But the turnabout case against Magnitsky that caused his 2008 arrest – for $17 million in tax fraud – didn’t end there. In a gothic twist not seen even in the notorious show trials of Joseph Stalin’s day, Moscow is pursuing him beyond the grave, with a trial due to begin March 3. 

A likely motivation was the international campaign for accountability carried out by Magnitsky’s former employer, William Browder of Hermitage Capital. Once a major investor in Russia, he was accused of fraud with Magnitsky after the investigation was launched.

His lobbying led to a U.S. law slapping visa and financial sanctions on those suspected in Magnitsky’s death – a move that enraged the Kremlin. Browder, who has left Russia, was beyond its reach. But the prosecution of Magnitsky went into high gear under an obscure law meant to allow families to clear the name of a deceased relative.

Was there a glimmer of black humour when the court ordered a state-sanctioned lawyer to represent the 37-year-old lawyer – now three years dead – and give him “legal advice?” 

Was Igor Alisov as sober (and straight faced) as any judge when he asked whether Magnitsky had been “properly notified” of the trial, and ordered the prosecutor to get his acknowledgment in writing?

When the trial begins, perhaps the court will exchange its law books for the spiritualist teachings of the great Russian mystic Helena Blavatsky, and conduct the hearings by séance.

Sadly, Magnitsky is unlikely to rise from the dead for the event. International critics wonder whether Russian justice will survive it. The outlook for the spirit, as well as the substance of the law, appears grave.

Olivia Ward has covered conflicts, politics and human rights as a correspondent and bureau chief, from the former Soviet Union to the Balkans, Northern Ireland, the Middle East and South Asia. She has won both national and international awards, collaborated on two Emmy-winning films and is one of the few journalists to have a war requiem written to her work.


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