A deceased lawyer may be tried posthumously by the government officials who killed him.
From the gulags to the "doctor's plot," Russian history is replete with politically orchestrated show trials. But an upcoming case may achieve the unlikely feat of raising the bar for legal and political corruption. That is because the defendant in the case, attorney Sergei Magnitsky, has been dead for two years. What's more, his trial is being sought by the very government and police officials who may have been complicit in his death.
Earlier this month, officials with the Russian Interior Ministry announced their plan to resubmit a tax evasion case that would see Magnitsky go on trial posthumously. Magnitsky first incurred these officials' ire in 2007, when he was an attorney with of the Moscow-based American law firm Firestone Duncan and an outside counsel for the investment fund Hermitage Capital. In June 2007, police from the ministry raided both Firestone Duncan and Hermitage Capital’s Moscow offices on the pretext of tax evasion charges. In the course of the raid, they took away the official documents and seals of the fund’s Russian investment companies – despite the fact these documents were outside the scope of their search warrant.
Within months, Hermitage learned of an arbitration judgment against one of its companies, even though it had no prior indication of any legal proceedings. Asked by Hermitage to investigate, Magnitsky discovered that the fund’s Russian companies had been sued by shell companies with which they had never done business. Forged and backdated contracts had been used to establish a business relationship that never existed. As well, the companies had been represented by lawyers the fund never hired and who admitted to liabilities spelled out in the forged contracts. As if this wasn’t scandalous enough, Magnitsky concluded that the signatures and seals used to forge the contracts could only have come from the documents taken by the interior ministry during the June 2007 raid. Magnitsky ultimately testified that officials with the Russian Interior Ministry had used had used Hermitage’s Russian companies to embezzle some $230 million from the Russian treasury by filing fraudulent corporate tax returns. It was government corruption on a spectacular scale.
Maginitsky's disclosures triggered an immediate and eventually fatal retaliation from the interior ministry. In 2008, Magnitsky was detained by police on charges of helping Hermitage to evade $17.4 million in taxes. Never formally charged with a crime, he was imprisoned without trial. In less than a year, he was dead.
How Magnitsky died remains a source of much controversy -- and a likely government cover-up. Officially, the cause of death was heart failure. But everyone from his surviving family to his employers to human-rights groups believes that his death was the result of deliberate mistreatment on the part of Russian authorities.
Bill Browder, Hermitage’s founder, has powerfully assembled evidence to this effect. In a 75-page, meticulously detailed report released this November -- the two-year anniversary of Magnitsky's death -- Browder shows that Magnitsky was not only denied medical care for a rapidly worsening medical condition, pancreatitis, but he was subjected to brutal beatings and inhumane prison conditions that caused his formerly perfect health to deteriorate. Browder’s report notes that Magnitsky made over 20 requests for medical care, each of which was refused, and the very existence of which was later denied by Russian prison officials. Forced to survive on a horrendous diet that in Magnitsky's own words included “porridge with insect larvae” and “rotten boiled herring,” he was beaten with rubber batons and had bruises on his hands and knees. The combination of refused medical treatment and physical punishment ultimately led to Magnitsky's death, at 37, on a prison floor. He died mere days before the one-year limit on detention without trial was set to expire.
While Magnitsky rotted away in prison, the officials he had testified against grew staggeringly rich. On a government salary, they boasted foreign bank accounts, vacation villas in Dubai, and million dollar estates in Moscow. The head of the interior ministry's tax office, Olga Stepanaova, gained $39 million as part of the $230 million tax rebate that Magnitsky uncovered. As a result, $11 million in cash was registered in Swiss bank accounts under her husband's name, even as her mother-in-law, a pensioner, was the registered owner of a $28 million estate in Moscow. Lieutenant Colonel Artyom Kuznetsov, who had ordered the 2007 raid on Firestone and Hermitage's offices, also registered million-dollar residences for his pensioner parents and bought luxury cars, as did his colleague at the interior ministry, Major Pavel Karpov. Notably, both Kuznetsov and Karpov had previously been accused of corruption in another case that saw a man sentenced to 11 years in prison on trumped-up fraud charges.
Magnitsky's plight generated so much outrage that even the Russian government acknowledged wrongdoing. A Russian investigative government body concluded that police, prison officials and doctors shared the blame for Magnitsky's untimely death, and last July Russian president Demitry Medvedev endorsed that conclusion.
Yet little has been done to win justice for Magintsky and his family. Although a government committee has said that the prison doctors and interrogators should be investigated, no such investigation has been forthcoming. Instead, interior ministry officials are trying to reopen the case against him. Magnitsky’s family has refused to participate in the proceedings, which they consider illegal and which they plausibly suspect are intended to absolve the same interior ministry officials who caused his death. Undaunted, the ministry forcibly removed the family’s lawyer last month and imposed a state lawyer on them.
If the trial is allowed to take place, it will be the second time that Magnitsky will be unable to defend himself in a court of law. It would be difficult to come up with a more damning verdict on Russian corruption than the fact that the state no longer even requires defendants to be alive to face the farce that passes for official justice.