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Sergei Magnitsky trial: Russia's 'dead soul' goes to court


Attorneys of lawyer Sergei Magnitsky sit in front of an empty defendants' cage during a court session in Moscow March 22.  (Mikhail Voskresensky/Reuters)

Raising the dead has fascinated Russians for centuries, and it’s no surprise that Mme Helena Blavatsky was one of the 19th century’s spiritualist superstars.

The novelist Nikolai Gogol added a different dimension in his book Dead Souls, a satirical allegory of fraud committed by a land swindler who listed the names of deceased serfs as his property for gain.

Now a Russian court – spurred on by President Vladimir Putin – has revived the worst of the spiritual and temporal worlds by opening a trial Friday against a dead man.

Whistle-blowing tax lawyer Sergei Magnitsky died under suspicious circumstances in a Moscow jail in 2008 after reporting an alleged massive tax refund fraud linked with senior Russian officials. But Russia flipped the allegations, and charged Magnitsky himself with tax fraud.

The bizarre trial appears to be Putin’s backlash against a U.S. law which barred travel and investment access to those suspected of involvement in Magnitsky’s death. The Russian court dismissed a case alleging that he was beaten to death in jail, after being denied treatment for a serious medical condition and possibly tortured.

In spite of objections from a Russian judge, human rights advocates and Western countries, the trial was launched under a little-used law meant to give families the chance to clear the names of dead relatives who were wrongfully accused of political crimes.

So far it hasn’t worked out well.

Postponed once, it was quickly adjourned, after the court-appointed lawyer defending the long-dead Magnitsky protested that the family didn’t recognize him as their attorney. But proceedings will reconvene next week.

In a statement Friday, the London-based International Bar Association’s Human Rights Institute urged Russia to call off the trial and begin an independent review of Magnitsky’s death and treatment in jail.

That won’t be happening any time soon. But at least the court didn’t go to the length that Pope Stephen VII did in 897, when he charged deceased predecessor, Pope Formosus, with heinous clerical crimes, hauled his decomposed corpse into court and hurled insults at it.

A sobering footnote: after a flaring Roman scandal, Stephen was overthrown.

Olivia Ward was bureau chief in Moscow in the 1990s.  She has covered conflicts, politics and human rights from the former Soviet Union to the Balkans, Northern Ireland, the Middle East and South Asia, winning both national and international awards.



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