Russia sets dead lawyer trial for March 11

A Moscow court on Monday set for next week the posthumous trial of a Russian lawyer whose death in jail has upset the Kremlin's delicate ties with the United States.

The Tverskoi District Court deliberated all day in a closed preliminary hearing to set the start of the trial against Sergei Magnitsky for March 11 at 11:00 am (0700 GMT), a spokeswoman for the court told AFP.

Magnitsky died in pre-trial detention in 2009 at the age of 37 after being arrested and charged by the very same officials he had accused of organising a $230-million fraud scheme.

The case has come to symbolise the Kremlin's failure to crack down on corruption and has prompted a crisis in US-Russia ties.

The trial will be Russia's first against a dead defendant and has been boycotted by Magnitsky's family.

Lawyers for him and co-defendant William Browder, the head of investment firm Hermitage Capital that employed Magnitsky, are public defenders appointed by the judge. Browder will be tried in absentia.

The public defender for Magnitsky, Nikolai Gerasimov, appealed to the judge to send the case back to Russian prosecutors, but the request was denied, according to opposition newspaper Novaya Gazeta.

Magnitsky's mother and her legal representatives have appealed to Moscow's lawyer community not to take part in "raw and outright blasphemy", arguing that appointment of a public defender to represent a dead man was not possibile under Russian law.

"A lawyer is not allowed to take an instruction in a case that is clearly unlawful, and to take a position against the will of the client," said a complaint written by Magnitsky's relatives and distributed by Hermitage Capital.

"The assertion by prosecutors that the case was initiated at the request from the relatives is a lie," the letter said.

Hermitage Capital was founded by the US born investor Browder, who has since been expelled from Russia and forced to move his business to London.

The Russian authorities reopened the case against Magnitsky nearly two years after his death in what Hermitage Capital claims is a bid to deflect attention from the real culprits in the tax fraud.

His death has prompted a crisis in US-Russia ties, with Moscow retaliating to a US bill blacklisting officials deemed guilty of persecuting the lawyer by banning US adoptions of Russian orphans.

Hermitage Capital was once the largest investor in Russia, injecting about four billion dollars into the Russian economy, and Browder openly supported President Vladimir Putin's policies while trying to expose corruption at major state companies in which his firm held shares.

He has since turned against Putin and unleashed a campaign to punish corrupt Russian officials, lately lobbying for a similar visa ban list against Russian officials in Europe.

Russia's NTV channel, which frequently airs smear films about the opposition, on Monday previewed a midnight special to be shown Wednesday about William Browder and the Magnitsky case, called "The Browder List".

"Who is Mr. William Browder?" the narrator asks over images of dollar bills and a smiling Browder. "What did Magnitsky die for and how did Browder use this death?"

Putin told a major annual press conference at the end of last year that Magnitsky "was not some human rights worker" but worked for Browder, "a man accused of economic crimes in Russia" and dismissed concerns about the case as "politicised".