Sergei Magnitsky, the defendant, will not be in a position to plead. He is dead. His trial, however, following some celebrated historical precedents (notably, Joan of Arc’s), will proceed even though, as Amnesty says, it violates his fundamental rights, in particular that “to defend himself in person”.
The bizarre, and very rare, decision of the Russian authorities to go ahead with the trial is possible because the law allows a posthumous trial to continue – it closed 13 days after his death in 2011 – but only at the request of relatives anxious to clear an accused’s name. Yet Magnitsky’s mother is adamantly opposed to the reopening, and the prosecuting authorities have no intention of clearing his name. On the contrary, the point, it appears, is to discredit both Magnitsky and a US sanctions law named after him which offends President Vladimir Putin and some of his corrupt pals.
Prosecutors accuse Magnitsky and his former client William Browder, a London-based investor, of evading €12.6 million in tax. The former was arrested in 2008 while investigating a €170 million tax fraud. He died in jail after developing untreated pancreatitis. The US Congress passed a law sanctioning officials whom Browder accuses of involvement in the fraud, and Russia responded by banning adoptions by Americans.
The Financial Times has, with justice, described the event as “theatre of the absurd” and a show trial harking “back to the blackest days of the Soviet Union”. Missing , however,will be a self-abasing confession, or indeed the body – when his enemies put Pope Formosus (pope, 891-6) on trial in the so-called Cadaver Synod, they dug his corpse up, clad it in pontifical vestments, and tried and condemned it on a throne in the council chamber.
Such consolations notwithstanding, the trial and the political use of the courts against dissenters like the Pussy Riot band shows up the still yawning gulf between Russia’s pretensions to an independent judiciary and the rule of law and still-entrenched authoritarianism.