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Is Russia trying a dead whistle-blower because of a US law?

The US recently enacted legislation targeting those Russian officials involved in the 2009 death of whistle-blowing lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, spurring an angry reaction from the Kremlin.

By Correspondent / January 2, 2013

Dmitry Kratov, the only official charged with the death of Russian whistle-blowing lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, sits in a court in Moscow last Friday. Dr. Kratov walked free later that day after the court acquitted him of negligence in a case that has become a rallying point for human rights advocates and sparked escalating legislation in the US and Russia.

Misha Japaridze/AP

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Moscow

At the center of the stormiest US-Russia diplomatic crisis since the cold war stands the enigmatic figure of Sergei Magnitsky, for whom the US Senate has named a punitive new law that imposes harsh visa and economic sanctions against scores of Russian officials who are deemed to have committed serious human rights violations.

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The tale of Mr. Magnitsky, a corporate lawyer who blew the whistle on a vast corruption scheme, was arrested by the same officials he had implicated, and was allegedly beaten to death in prison over three years ago, appears to validate all the worst suspicions held in the West about the nature of Vladimir Putin's Russia. The Magnitsky Act, signed into law by President Barack Obama last month, is a controversial new breed of legislation that aims to compensate for the perceived failures of Russia's justice system by meting out punishment to about 60 Russian officials deemed to have been involved in the wrongful prosecution and alleged murder of Magnitsky.

The Kremlin's incandescent response makes it likely that the mutual acrimony will expand in weeks to come. Mr. Putin called the Magnitsky Act a "purely political, unfriendly act" that demanded a stern riposte. Last week he signed the retaliatory Dima Yakovlev Act, whose key provision is a ban on all adoptions of Russian children by US citizens.

But in an apparent effort to overturn the widely-held Western narrative, which sees Magnitsky as the victim of corrupt officials and a lawless state, Russian prosecutors have announced they will put the deceased Magnitsky on trial later this month, seeking to prove that he and his former boss, Bill Browder, head of the London-based Hermitage Capital, were the real criminals.

The pending trial has been fiercely opposed by Magnitsky's mother – who will be required to stand in for her dead son – and lawyers, who argue that a posthumous trial is against Russian law in all cases except when a family asks the court to "rehabilitate" a victim of an unjust verdict (a common legacy of the Stalin era).

"We did not ask for this, and we do not think the deputy prosecutor had any right to revive Sergei's case after it was closed upon his death," says Natalia Magnitskaya, Magnitsky's mother.

"We seriously doubt that the very same people who prosecuted Sergei hold out any prospect of rehabilitating him. So, our family doesn't want to take any part in these illegal actions," she adds.

Last week a Russian court acquitted Dmitry Kratov, a prison doctor who is the only official ever to have been charged in connection with Magnitsky's death. Mr. Kratov had been accused of failing to render timely medical assistance on the night Magnitsky died in handcuffs on the floor of a Moscow prison cell. A post-mortem report issued by the Russian Ministry of Health indicated that "the injuries on Magnitsky's body were most likely caused by multiple injuring impacts of a blunt object that might possibly be a rubber baton."

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