Putinology

The Dead Man’s Trial

The Dead Man’s Trial

MOSCOW — Without a word, a gloomy cleaning lady in a blue apron and pink rubber slippers over long woolen socks pushed a mop down the narrow corridor. A crowd of tired and quiet reporters shuffled aside to let her pass. Her mop rubbed the dirt from the wet floor of the waiting area of the Tverskoi Courthouse, only to be immediately muddied again by hundreds of boots. Five hours had passed since the scheduled start of the latest hearing in the trial of a dead suspect, the first such trial in Russia’s history. The suspect in question was Sergei Magnitsky, who died in jail at age 37, three years ago. Inside Courtroom Number 4, the benches and chairs remained empty. So did the suspect’s cage (shown above).

"Get out of here!" an annoyed security officer in black uniform shouted at reporters, pushing people away from the court door. Silence filled the stuffy space. People looked lost, trying to understand the true meaning behind the man’s statement. Did it mean that the trial would be once again delayed for many hours, or cancelled entirely? Nothing has made any sense so far. "Is there any scenario, any purpose for making journalists wait for so long?" I asked Vera ?heilsheva, an experienced court reporter for the Russian investigative newspaper Novaya Gazeta. "Clearly they want us to lose interest in Magnitsky," she answered. And today she had no expectations of witnessing the miracle of justice in Russia.

Not one foot budged from the wet floor of the court door. From the day of his arrest in November 2008 to the day of his death in prison in November 2009, the young lawyer never had a chance to have his day in court. But he believed in justice and a fair trial, his family and supporters say, and continued to accuse senior Russian police and tax officials in organizing a $230 million fraud. "He was angry to see evidence of stupid falsifications, stupid lies at his preliminary court hearings, but he believed that somewhere there had to be some heroic judge of dignity and courage," Magnitsky’s mother, Natalya Magnitskaya, said in a phone interview. Along with Sergei’s family members, friends, and civil society activists, Mrs. Magnitskaya boycotted the trial of her dead son and stayed at home today.

Her deceased son’s name has long since a symbol for the fight against the corruption of Russian officials, and also a symbol of the poor relationship between Russia and the United States. Interest in the Magnitsky case has shown no sign of fading either in Russia or on the West. Magnitsky was originally accused of helping his employer William Browder, the head of Hermitage Capital, evade over $17 million in taxes. Earlier this month investigators brought new charges against Browder alleging he "illegally purchased" Gazprom’s shares. A law named after Magnitsky, and signed by U.S. President Barack Obama last December, punished the entire chain of Russian officials guilty in the lawyer’s death, denying them U.S. visas. Magnitsky’s family appealed to the British government to adopt a similar law, since London is home to some of the richest and most influential Russian families. A group of young Russian enthusiasts and human rights activists continue to work on an independent investigation of Magnitsky’s case: "We recently sent a file regarding the head of the Investigative Committee, Alexander Bastrykin, to the U.S. Sate Department, and asked that he be added to the list of punished officials," activist Natalya Pelevina said.

Earlier this week, Russia closed the criminal investigation of Magnitsky’s death due to "the absence of a crime" committed against him. But the international community still called for the responsible Russian officials to be punished. As the hearing was about to begin, the International Bar Association’s Human Rights Institute released a report harshly criticizing the court for putting a dead man on trial. "The Constitutional Court of the Russian Federation decision of 14 July 2011 does not give law enforcement agencies a basis to pursue or revive charges against a deceased person," they wrote.

No official in the courtroom today seemed too concerned about how the process would appear to the outside world. As in a theater of the absurd, the detention cage meant to hold Magnitsky and his former employer, American businessman Bill Browder, remained empty during the trial, but guards in black uniform still stood there, protecting the absent accused. The prosecutor, occasionally smiling to himself, listed the accusations against the defendants, who are charged with evading $17 million in taxes. The judge, Igor Alisov, looked more than confident from underneath his square glasses. So too did the two prosecutors, as well as the representative of the federal tax police service, a woman who showed up to the court wearing a luxurious mink coat. Unexpectedly, the state-appointed defense attorneys actually attempted to seek justice for their clients. They asked the court to have the Constitutional Court rule on the constitutionality of trying the dead. But Judge Alisov overruled their appeal — thus ensuring that the trial will continue next week.

I managed to get Bill Browder, Magnitsky’s co-defendant, on the phone from London  shortly afterwards. "This trial will be written about in the history books as the hallmark of Russia’s descent into legal nihilism," he said.