MOSCOW — A Russian court wrapped up the trial of a dead man Thursday, finding whistleblower Sergei Magnitsky guilty of fraud but waiving a sentence.
Magnitsky was a lawyer who unearthed a $230 million fraud by police and tax officials, but he was arrested and charged with perpetrating the fraud himself. He died in a Moscow prison in 2009, apparently after a severe beating.
Outrage over his case inspired a U.S. law imposing financial and visa sanctions on corrupt Russian officials, which in turn led to a Russian law banning American adoptions of Russian children.
Other nations, including Britain, may be following the United States’ lead.
Also convicted Thursday, in absentia, was the man Magnitsky was working for, investment manager William Browder. Now in London, Browder has sponsored a years-long investigation into the case along with a campaign to bring the officials responsible to account. Safely beyond the reach of Russian justice, he was sentenced to nine years in prison. His attorney said he plans to appeal.
“Today’s verdict will go down in history as one of the most shameful moments for Russia since the days of Joseph Stalin,” Browder said in a statement. “This is the first conviction of a dead man in Europe in the last ten centuries.”
Browder had at one time been an enthusiastic investor in Russia, through his firm Hermitage Capital, and a decade ago he was a strong supporter of President Vladimir Putin. But he pushed for more efficient and transparent corporate governance, and that eventually made him a target. Corporate documents were stolen from Hermitage and used in the tax fraud Magnitsky later uncovered.
“The desperation behind this move shows the lengths that Putin is ready to go to to retaliate against anyone who exposes the stealing and corruption he presides over,” Browder said in the statement. “When the Putin regime ultimately falls, future generations of Russians will be naming streets and monuments after Sergei Magnitsky for his heroism and sacrifice.”
Although he received no sentence, Magnitsky was denied the opportunity for legal rehabilitation, which his family had been seeking.
“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 his statement.
Britain appears to have banned a number of officials associated with the Magnitsky case, although on a more informal basis than the United States. The Sergei Magnitsky Accountability and Rule of Law Act, signed into law by President Obama in December, was denounced by Russian officials and may have goaded them into putting Magnitsky on trial posthumously this spring.
Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin (D-Md.), sponsor of the Magnitsky Act, said Thursday that the conviction of Magnitsky after his death was “shameful.” The State Department issued a comment saying it was “disappointed” by Magnitsky’s conviction. “The trial was a discredit to the efforts of those who continue to seek justice in his case,” it said. “Despite widely publicized, credible evidence of criminal conduct resulting in Magnitsky’s death, authorities have failed to prosecute those responsible. We continue to call for full accountability for all those responsible for Magnitsky’s wrongful death, and we’ll continue to support the efforts of those in Russia who seek to hold those individuals accountable.”
“Sadly, we have come to expect this sort of behavior from the Putin regime,” he said in a statement. “Such a verdict does no further harm to Sergei, though it must be torturous for his family and friends.”
Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.), House sponsor of the Magnitsky bill, also said he was disappointed but not surprised by the conviction. “It is clear to me and the rest of the international community that the posthumous trial and its verdict have been orchestrated by the Russian authorities in order to shift attention from their own misguided and criminal actions and corruption,” he said.