Russian judge refuses to halt trial of dead lawyer

A Russian judge on Friday refused to halt the controversial posthumous trial of lawyer Sergei Magnitsky for tax evasion, days after Russia closed a probe into the circumstances of his prison death.

"The court has the right to examine the case against the dead man, including with the aims of rehabilitating him," judge Igor Alisov said in Moscow's Tverskoi district court, the RAPSI legal news agency reported.

Magnitsky's defence team -- which was appointed by the state and not his family, who boycotted the trial -- had urged the judge to halt proceedings and check its legality with the Constitutional Court.

However the trial went ahead after Russian investigators on Tuesday closed a probe into Magnitsky's 2009 death at 37, after he spent 11 months on remand in squalid prisons, arguing there was no evidence of a crime.

The tax evasion trial opened March 11 but was almost immediately adjourned after the defence team failed to show up.

Putting a dead man on trial is theoretically allowed under Russian law such as when relatives ask for rehabilitation, to clear the defendant's name. In this case the defence team has asked for the Constitutional Court to rule on its legality when relatives are opposed.

Magnitsky, an employee of Western hedge fund Hermitage Capital, blew the whistle on massive fraud by state officials and was shortly afterwards himself charged with tax evasion.

His London-based former employer William Browder, who is also standing trial in absentia, and his relatives, say he was deliberately denied adequate treatment for health problems and was tortured.

This was backed up in findings by the Kremlin's rights council, an advisory body, but denied by investigators.

The US Congress has adopted a law placing sanctions on officials implicated in the death, while Russia hit back with measures including a law banning US adoptions of Russian children.

The powerful Investigative Committee said this week that it had closed a probe into his death after the only defendant on trial for medical negligence was acquitted.

It said that there was no evidence of crime or torture and that Magnitsky died from heart failure.

EU High Commissioner Catherine Ashton on Wednesday called the probe's closure "regrettable."