Russia adjourns dead lawyer trial to March 22

A Moscow court on Monday adjourned the tax evasion trial of dead Russian lawyer Sergei Magnitsky until March 22, after opening the process in defiance of criticism from his family and the West.

The trial of Magnitsky -- whose 2009 death lead to a crisis in relations with the United States -- got underway at the Tverskoi district court but was almost immediately adjourned by the judge.

The defence team -- controversially appointed by the court after Magnitsky's family boycotted the trial -- failed to show up at the hearing and in a written request asked the judge for more time.

The tiny courtroom was crammed with journalists who barely had any room to sit while the cage that usually holds defendants stood symbolically empty as well as the bench where defence lawyers sit.

Judge Igor Alisov set the date for the next hearing on March 22.

Magnitsky died in a Moscow prison in November 2009 of untreated illnesses after 11 months in pre-trial detention over a multi-million dollar tax evasion scam which his supporters say he exposed rather than committed. He was aged 37.

His family has boycotted the trial as a legal absurdity but the process is still going ahead after the court appointed defence lawyers to take Magnitsky's case in defiance of the family's wishes.

Putting a dead man on trial is theoretically allowed under Russian law but hugely unusual and this is believed to the first posthumous trial in the history of modern Russia.

Magnitsky's mother Natalia Magnitskaya has asked Moscow lawyers not to participate in the trial, and his widow on Monday appealed to their conscience.

"I see this trial as desecration of the memory of my husband Sergei Magnitsky," Natalia Zharikova said in statement released by his former employer Hermitage Capital.

"I think this trial has no legal foundation and goes against principles of rights and human values."

She said that anyone "with a conscience" should not take part in the trial which she labelled as a "blasphemy".

The lawyers appointed by the court argued in a note sent to the judge that the timetable for the trial had not been properly agreed with them and had asked until May to study all 60 volumes of the case, of which they had only studied five.

"With the absence of defence we cannot continue," said prosecutor Mikhail Reznichenko, complaining the lawyers were asking for too much time and threatening to report their behaviour to the bar.

The trial has been criticised by the West, with the US State Department last month saying that "instead of wasting time and resources retrying this poor man who has already passed, the Russian government ought to put its energy into investigating how he died."

In the week preceding the trial, Russian television aired several smear programmes which lined up pro-Kremlin analysts to discredit Magnitsky and his former employer and co-defendant William Browder as profiteers who plotted a tax fraud cover up.

William Browder, a US-born British citizen whose Hermitage Capital investment fund was once the biggest investor in Russia, has lobbied Western governments hard over the case.

Based in Britain, he is being tried in absentia.

Magnitsky’s death became a symbol of rights abuse in Russia and prompted the US Congress to adopt a law sanctioning Russian officials implicated in the death. Russia then hit back with measures of its own, including a ban on US adoptions of Russian children.

His supporters say that Magnitsky uncovered a tax scam that was being committed by top officials but then was arrested and charged with the very same crimes he had exposed.

Furthermore, he was then investigated by the same officials he had blamed. His supporters say his death was due to deliberate negligence, an accusation denied by the Russian authorities.

Legal proceedings against a prison doctor, Larisa Litvinova, accused in the case were halted in April last year. A senior prison official, Dmitry Kratov, who had been charged with negligence, was acquitted in a trial in December.