Guilty: Russian court passes verdict on dead lawyer at center of row with the West

Sergei Magnitsky died in prison after uncovering evidence of a $230 million tax scam by officials.

Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP
A cameraman films an empty defendant's bench in a courtroom in Moscow today. Russian news agencies say a court in Moscow has found dead lawyer and whistleblower Sergei Magnitsky guilty of tax evasion.

A mild-mannered corporate lawyer who's been dead for almost four years was found guilty of tax evasion in a Moscow court today.

The posthumous trial of Sergei Magnitsky, who testified about a $230 million tax scam by high officials and then found himself arrested by the same police officers he had accused, had become for many people around the world a symbol of just how strange – and often, scary – a place Russia has become during the third Kremlin term of Vladimir Putin.

The vast gulf of disagreement between Russia and the West over the Magnitsky case has been, perhaps, the single most painful aggravating factor in the worst diplomatic chill between Moscow and Washington since the end of the cold war.

Mr. Magnitsky died under suspicious circumstances, after allegedly being beaten in a Moscow pre-trial detention center in November 2009, about a year after his arrest.

The Russian government has come under intense criticism for allegedly bending Russian laws in order to stage the nearly unprecedented trial of a dead man, appointing defense lawyers against the wishes of Magnitsky's family – who refused to participate in the process – and allowing the case against him to be shaped by officials who are implicated in the corruption scandal that Magnitsky uncovered.

Critics also allege that the trial was staged in a bid to deflect international outrage over Magnitsky's fate, including a US law, known as the Magnitsky Act, which levels strict visa and financial sanctions against a list of Russian officials accused of involvement in Magnitsky's death and other alleged human rights violations.

Russia's incandescent response to the Magnitsky Act was to pass its own tit-for-tat law, the Dima Yakovlev Act, which, among other things, banned adoptions of Russian orphans by US citizens.

So there was little surprise when Moscow's Tverskoi District Court found Magnitsky guilty Thursday, and sentenced his exiled co-defendant, Hermitage Capital CEO Bill Browder to 9 years in prison in absentia – everything prosecutors had asked for.

"I never doubted this would be the verdict. I do not believe he was guilty. I know he did not commit any crime, and there was no proof to the contrary," the official RIA-Novosti agency quoted Magnitsky's lawyer, Dmitry Kharitonov, as saying.

Magnitsky's 2009 death prompted his employer, Mr. Browder, whose Hermitage Capital was once the biggest foreign investor in Russia, to bankroll an extensive investigation into the corruption case that Magnitsky uncovered and the conditions that led to his death. That investigation, available online, along with a subsequent report by the Kremlin's own in-house human rights commission concluded that Magnitsky was framed by corrupt Russian police, tax, and government officials, denied medical care in jail, and probably beaten to death in a holding cell – while an ambulance was forced to wait outside the prison for an hour – by investigators who were trying to force a confession from him.

The Kremlin's Investigative Committee, Russia's highest police body, has apparently never looked into Magnitsky's original allegations, which pointed to a high-level conspiracy to defraud the Russian state treasury of $230 million in taxes paid by Hermitage companies in 2006. Instead, the same officials he had named had Magnitsky arrested and charged with tax evasion.

According to Browder's investigation, much of the stolen money has since turned up in Western banks or in the form of expensive foreign properties purchased by the very same police and tax officials Magnitsky had accused.

But the Investigative Committee closed its probe into Magnitsky's death in March with the conclusion that no crimes had been committed by Russian officials or police in the way they handled the case.

Prosecutors alleged – and won conviction Thursday – on the charge that Magnitsky and Browder manipulated Hermitage's tax returns to embezzle millions of dollars from the state in 2007. Though it's not completely clear, this does not appear to be even related to the tax scam that Magnitsky blew the whistle on. Prosecutors also claimed that Browder was guilty of illegally purchasing shares of the state-owned natural gas monopoly Gazprom early in the decade, when foreigners were restricted from investing in the company.

"The worst part of today's verdict is the malicious pain that the Russian government is ready to inflict on the grieving family of a man who was killed for standing up to government corruption and police abuse," Browder said in a statement Thursday.

"The desperation behind this move shows the lengths that Putin is ready to go any to retaliate against anyone who expose the stealing and corruption he presides over. When the Putin regime ultimately falls, future generations of Russians will be naming streets and monuments after Sergei Magnitsky for his heroism and sacrifice," he added.

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